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Uninsured population continues to grow



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WASHINGTON, Aug 30, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Nearly 46 million Americans went without health insurance in 2004, an increase of about 1 million over the previous year, a new U.S. Census survey has found.

Because of population growth, however, the percentage of people lacking health insurance remained relatively unchanged at 15.7 percent, according to the data, taken from the agency's Current Population Survey.

The report also showed that last year 2 million more Americans gained health insurance, but largely through public-assistance programs such as Medicaid and the military's healthcare system.

"Overall, the story is that uninsured rates are relatively stable," said Charles Nelson, the Census Bureau's assistant division chief for income, poverty and health statistics.

"For children, uninsured rates appear to be declining over time," Nelson told United Press International.

The number of uninsured children has been decreasing for the past several years, but the change in both the actual number and the percentage was not significant between 2003 and 2004, the Census figures showed. In both years, 8.3 million, or 11.2 percent, of U.S. children were without health-insurance coverage.

There was a small decline in the percentage of children in poverty without health insurance between 2003 and 2004 -- from 19.2 percent to 18.9 percent -- although the percentage remains relatively high for that population.

Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy for Families USA, an advocacy organization in Washington, said the unchanged percentage of the uninsured may not be the most practical way of looking at the issue.

"I don't see this as stability," Stoll told UPI, "I see it as a sign of a growing crisis."

The 1 million more Americans going without health insurance marks the fourth consecutive year such an increase has been reported, and the trend is expected to continue, she said, noting that nearly 20 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanic-Americans lack health insurance.

"I seriously wonder how high these numbers have to go for us to start addressing the issue," Stoll said.

A 2003 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "Sicker and Poorer: The Consequences of Being Uninsured," that analyzed more than 200 research reports found that people without health insurance often experience difficulty accessing the healthcare system and often are sicker than insured patients when they do so.

The number of uninsured should be a "wake-up call to members of Congress," said Karen Ignani, president and chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans in Washington, a trade group of health insurers.

Industry efforts to improve efficiency and contain costs are beginning to pay off, Ignani said, citing a recent report by consulting firm Hewitt Associates that showed health-insurance premiums are expected to increase by 12.4 percent next year, the lowest rate of increase in more than five years.

"Our job is to provide affordable options," Ignani told UPI. "Now, Congress needs to offer a helping hand to low-income working families."

She said tax credits or other subsidies could help the half of the uninsured that consists of working families.

The Census report also showed employer-provided health-insurance coverage has slowly but surely dropped over the past decade. The percentage of Americans with private health insurance was 68.1 percent in 2004, down from 68.6 percent in 2003 and 69.6 percent in 2002.

Stoll said the increases in coverage via Medicaid may not be sustainable, because Congress is trying to shave $10 billion from Medicaid costs over the next five years.

"If we continue to whittle away at the Medicaid program, if Congress insists on cutting funding, the increase in the uninsured could easily be much higher," she said.

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Joel Finkelstein covers healthcare matters for UPI. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright 2005 by United Press International.

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