Official estimates by the Census Bureau showing an increase of about 1 million in the number of Americans without health insurance in 2010 – to a 35-year high of 49.9 million persons, or 16.3 percent of the population, under the bureau’s revised calculation method – underscore the urgency of going beyond the Obama administration’s federal health law and swiftly implementing a single-payer, improved Medicare-for-all program, spokespersons for Physicians for a National Health Program said today.
Employment-based coverage continued to decline. The bureau said 55.3 percent of Americans were covered by employment-based plans in 2010, down from 56.1 percent in 2009. It was the eleventh consecutive year of decline, from 64.2 percent in 2000.
In Massachusetts, whose 2006 health reform is widely viewed as the model for the federal health law, 370,000 people remained uninsured in 2010, representing 5.6 percent of the population, a jump from 4.3 percent who were uninsured in 2009.
Some states posted greater than a 3-percentage-point to 5-percentage-point increase in their uninsured rate, namely Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana and South Carolina. In terms of absolute numbers, Louisiana had the largest increase in the number of uninsured, 240,700, followed by New York (177,700) and South Carolina (173,300). (See link to table of historical state-based data below.)
Among various population groups, the greatest loss of coverage was among working-age adults between the ages of 35 and 64, people with incomes below $49,999, and people with disabilities. Hispanics continue to disproportionately face uninsurance (30.7 percent), compared with blacks (20.8 percent), Asians (18.1 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.7 percent).
About 7.3 million children remain uninsured, the bureau said. Young people between the ages of 19 to 25 had a drop of 1.6 percentage points in their uninsurance rate, a figure the Census Bureau suggests is linked to the federal health law’s provision that allows dependent children to be covered under a parent’s health plan.
Lack of health insurance is known to have deadly consequences. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that 45,000 deaths annually can be linked to lack of coverage. Along the same lines, studies have shown that uninsured people with chronic illnesses like heart disease often delay or forgo care, often leading to serious complications of their medical condition and, in some cases, premature death.
"Tragically, we know that the new figures of uninsured mean a preventable annual death toll of about 50,000 people -- that's about one death every 10 minutes," said Dr. Garrett Adams, president of PNHP, a nationwide organization of 18,000 physicians.
The Louisville, Ky.-based physician said that even if the administration's new health law works as planned, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 23 million people will remain uninsured in 2019.
Adams was in Washington today, testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the topic, “Is poverty a death sentence?”
Significantly, the Census Bureau said the number of people living in poverty, 46.2 million, is the largest number recorded in the 52 years such estimates have been published.
The increase in the uninsured would have been significantly higher had it not been for an increase in the number of people covered by government health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and military health care. Some in Congress have urged substantial cuts to such programs, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. If implemented, such cuts would almost certainly increase the uninsured rate in years ahead.
"The only remedy for this persistent problem is to insure everyone," Dr. Adams said. "And the only way to insure everyone at a reasonable cost is to enact single-payer national health insurance, an improved Medicare for all. Single payer would streamline bureaucracy, saving $400 billion a year on administrative overhead, enough to pay for all the uninsured and to upgrade everyone else's coverage. The new system’s bargaining clout would also help rein in rising costs."
Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health and visiting professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, noted that the Census Bureau was once again silent on the pervasive problem of "underinsurance."
"Not having health insurance, or having poor quality insurance that doesn't protect you from financial hardship in the face of medical need, is a source of mounting stress, personal bankruptcy and poor medical outcomes," Woolhandler said.
Referring to the Affordable Care Act, she said, “The new law’s subsidies for health insurance will not be sufficient to provide quality and affordable coverage to the vast majority of Americans. Tens of millions will remain uninsured, underinsured and without access to care. We need more fundamental reform. We need a single-payer national health insurance program."