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43.6 Million Don't Have Health Insurance

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The number of U.S. residents without health insurance rose at the fastest clip in a decade last year, hitting 43.6 million, a development expected to increase pressure on lawmakers to take strong action to ease the problem.

About 15% of the population was without insurance in 2002, Census Bureau figures released today show. The number of uninsured grew by 2.4 million, the largest increase since 1991-92, when 3.2 million lost coverage.

Many of those people lost their jobs -- and their insurance -- because of the struggling economy. For some, insurance was lost when double-digit premium increases caused employers to stop offering coverage. Some of the uninsured opted not to enroll in coverage offered by employers, as the amount taken from their paychecks to cover the cost rose.

Slowing the increase in the uninsured last year was a rise in the number of residents enrolled in Medicaid, the federal/state health program for the poor. The number of uninsured children fell, reflecting an effort to enroll eligible low-income children in government health plans. Overall, the number of residents with insurance rose by 1.5 million, mainly due to population growth.

This year, many state Medicaid programs are facing cuts and adult enrollees are being dropped from coverage.

''If what we are experiencing in our emergency rooms and clinics across the county is any indication . . . my fear is the 2003 figures will be far worse,'' Michael Place, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, an association of Catholic hospitals, clinics and health plans. Member hospitals report a steady increase in patients without insurance or without adequate coverage.

The rapid rise in the number of uninsured means lawmakers will feel pressure from constituents who are worried about losing coverage, says Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a non-partisan research group in Washington.

He expects lawmakers will consider more far-reaching proposals than those seen in recent years: ''Incremental change is dead for now.''

The Bush administration has called for increased funding for health clinics and a tax credit for low- and moderate-income residents to help offset the cost of buying health insurance. Presidential candidates have suggested a range of plans, many of which would expand existing government health programs.

The largest increase in the uninsured -- a jump of 1.1 million -- came in households earning $25,000 to $49,999 a year. The next-largest jump, 633,000, came in households with incomes of $75,000 or more. The smallest jump was among households with less than $25,000 in income, the group most likely eligible for government aid. Still, the lowest-income group represents the largest total number of uninsured.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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