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WASHINGTON, Sep 18, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A series of reports examining the changes in health insurance coverage in the United States over the last several years show a decline in the percentage of Hispanics with health coverage in the United States.
The findings, released this week, highlight both the importance of access to healthcare as a key issue for Latino voters and the attempts by the major political parties to garner steadfast support from this growing and prized demographic group in the runup to the 2004 election.
Researchers from the liberal-leaning Urban Institute found that from 1999-2002 the uninsured rate increased by 3 percent among Hispanic-Americans, the nation's largest minority group, while declining 3 percent among blacks and remaining steady for whites. This follows the overall trend of lower than average access to healthcare for Hispanics, which is potentially a top issue for Hispanic voters next year.
Stephen Zuckerman, a principal research associate in the Health Policy Center of the Urban Institute and author of one of the policy papers, said adults under the age of 65 and across all ethic groups and income levels lost employer-sponsored coverage over this period.
Overall, the share of non-elderly adults who were uninsured remained stable, but only because of increased enrollment in public health insurance programs. For two of three top ethnic groups in the United States -- blacks and whites -- public assistance made up the gaps or exceeded it. This is not the case for Hispanics.
"What is clearly happening for Hispanics is that they are losing employer-sponsored coverage at a greater rate than other ethnic groups and they don't see as dramatic growths in public sector coverage to offset the employer sponsored drop off," Zuckerman told United Press International.
The overall share of adults with coverage provided through employers fell from 72.2 percent to 70.5 percent, while public coverage rates increase from 4.7 percent to 5.7 percent in the same period.
Adjusting for population increases over the period, almost half of the 4 million adults who lost coverage gained public health coverage due to expansions of state-level programs to meet the increased needs during the economic downturn.
Nevertheless, about 29 million adults -- about 17 percent of Americans -- remain uninsured through last year.
Among whites, employer coverage fell by 1.7 percent while public insurance coverage increased by 1 percent. Uninsured rates increased slightly from 12.1 percent to 12.3 percent.
The overall rate of coverage among blacks improved during the period, with uninsured rates falling from 22.7 percent to 19.9 percent of the population.
The rate of employer coverage among blacks also did not decline as it did for whites and Hispanics. Zuckerman attributes this to the fact that a larger share of blacks moves from low to high-income brackets over the period.
For Hispanics, the increase in public coverage was insufficient to counterbalance the 5-percent rate of decline in employer-sponsored insurance. During the period, the rate of uninsured among Hispanic adults increased from 37.7 percent to 40.8 percent, the highest rate of non-coverage.
Zuckerman and other policy experts say that one of the reasons for this is that Hispanics tend to have the type of jobs, like hourly and contract work, that does not provide health insurance or are easily scaled back during leaner times.
This is one of the reasons there have long been concerns about access to insurance and, more broadly, healthcare, for the Hispanics population.
Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country's largest and oldest Hispanic lobby, said that most federal program dealing with access to healthcare issue fail to address the needs of much of the Hispanic community.
He noted that recent expansions of the State Children's Health Program, the main federal program that provided health coverage for poor children, has failed to reach parts of the Hispanic community for a variety of reasons, including language barriers.
"When you find uninsured numbers going up it is not surprising," Wilkes told UPI.
Low rates of insurance may also account for the fact that Hispanics are less likely that whites to access preventive care. Because of such barriers, healthcare is seen as a particularly important Latino voting issue. Polls have repeatedly placed it as one of the top four policy issues for Hispanic voters, both conservative and liberal, along with education, the economy and jobs.
This is important because the demographic is a prized one, particularly for statewide races in part of the country with high Hispanic populations and for presidential elections.
While the Hispanic vote tends to skew toward Democratic candidates 70 percent of the time, as a group they are not a guaranteed Democrat vote, which has made them key swing voters in many states, including California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas.
Together these five states represent 85 percent of the Electoral College. Florida is particularly important because it is viewed as up for grabs following the close vote in the state during the 2000 election.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 34 percent of registered Latino voters age 18-29 identified with the Democratic Party, 26 percent with the Republican Party. Twenty-one percent of those polled called themselves independent. This demonstrates how a large section of the Hispanic vote in this demographic range up for grabs.
Because of such factors, Kiplinger Business Forecasts has estimated that both parties will spend a combined $8 million to $10 million to reach Latino voters during the 2004 election cycle.
"The Latino vote is clearly viewed as up for grabs," one Senate Republican leadership aide told UPI. "That is why both sides are doing what they can to appeal to this demographic. Just look at what we did with the Miguel Estrada nomination."
President Bush had nominated Estrada to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. After Democratic senators stalled the nomination for several months with a filibuster, Estrada recently withdrew from consideration for the appointment.
(Part Two of this two-part article will focus on the attempt of the Republican and Democratic parties to reach out to Hispanic voters and whether they are up to the challenge. It will be filed Friday.)
Copyright 2003 by United Press International.