Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Number of Americans without health insurance hits new high

Number of Americans without health insurance hits new high
By Tony Pugh | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The continued loss of job-based coverage helped push the number of Americans without health insurance to 47 million last year, the highest total on record and the sixth straight year that the ranks of the uninsured have grown.

New annual Census Bureau survey data released Tuesday showed that the number of uninsured Americans jumped by 2.2 million in 2006, from 15.3 percent of Americans in 2005 to a record-tying 15.8 percent last year. The number of uninsured children increased for the second straight year as well, spiking by more than 611,000 last year to nearly 8.7 million.

Tuesday's annual census report also had some upbeat news. The nation's median household income - half of households earn more than the median and half earn less - increased by $356 to $48,200 last year. The amount increased more than inflation for the second straight year.

The significant increases in the number of Americans without health insurance are unprecedented because they occurred in a fairly strong economy and at a time when health-care premium increases have been moderating, said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health-care issues.

"I think the bad news from the statistics today is that when the economy is doing fairly well, we're still seeing a continued erosion in the ability of working families to get health coverage through the workplace, which places more and more people at risk of being uninsured," Rowland said.

With health care a top concern going into the 2008 elections, America's health-care system and the growing numbers of uninsured also have become political issues.

Each Democratic presidential candidate has offered a plan to address both concerns and Republican candidates have begun tackling the problem too. Congress, the nation's governors and state officials from both political parties want to reauthorize and greatly expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which has reduced the number of low-income uninsured children dramatically since its inception in 1998.

About 6.6 million children are covered through SCHIP. Of the 8.7 million uninsured youngsters in the United States, 5 million to 6 million are eligible for coverage through Medicaid or SCHIP.

The Bush administration opposes the efforts to cover more children under SCHIP. In addition to President Bush's vows to veto funding increases for the program that both houses of Congress have approved, the administration recently adopted tough new requirements that make it nearly impossible for states to expand eligibility for children from higher-earning families.

Tuesday's census numbers sparked a torrent of calls for Bush to drop his veto threat and support expanding SCHIP.

In a letter to the president this week, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama urged Bush to rescind the new requirements and commit to supporting the bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Apparently unmoved, Bush issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the House and Senate proposals because they'd be funded by stiff increases in taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. He said the taxes would undermine the economy. The president also has said that both bills would lead people who can afford private coverage to opt for cheaper government coverage through SCHIP.

"What American workers do not need right now are tax increases to fuel excess spending by the Congress. I encourage Democratic leaders in Congress to resist their urge to increase taxes on Americans and to live within the budget limits I've proposed," Bush said in a statement.

The Senate's bipartisan bill increases SCHIP funding by $35 billion over five years and would cover another 3 million youngsters. The House approved a Democratic bill that boosts funding by nearly $50 billion and would cover an additional 6 million children.

The president supports a $5 billion funding increase, which isn't enough to maintain current levels and could force hundreds of thousands of children out of the program over five years.

Congressional negotiators will merge both bills and send the final product to the president for his signature. The amount of the spending increase is to be determined. A presidential veto probably would face an override vote in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Bush has said that allowing states to cover more affluent children in the program, which both bills do, would be the first step toward government-funded universal health coverage. He supports tax incentives to help people buy health insurance in the private market.

The growing number of uninsured Americans during Bush's two terms in office reflects the administration's limited attention to the problem and its misguided policy proposals to address it, charged Cindy Mann, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.

While the president has pushed for health savings accounts and tax incentives to help people buy private coverage, those measures haven't taken off in the marketplace or won approval in Congress, Mann said.

While the problem of the uninsured predates Bush's time in the White House, the fact that the president hasn't mustered a major initiative to address it "may well be part of his legacy," Kaiser's Rowland said.

Although the census report found that median household income grew last year, the concentration of America's wealth remained at the top of the earnings totem pole. The top 20 percent of earners accounted for slightly more than half of aggregate income, while the lowest 40 percent of earners accounted for only 12 percent of aggregate income.

The median income for men who work full time declined for the third straight year, from $42,743 in 2005 to $42,261 last year. Full-time working women saw their average incomes fall for the fourth straight year, from $32,903 to $32,515.

The nation's poverty rate declined from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent in 2006. However, the number of people in poverty held steady at about 36.5 million.

To see a copy of the new census report on health insurance, income and poverty in 2006, go to Census report on insurance.