September 22, 2009

States crunch the numbers: ranks of medically uninsured are growing

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New Census Bureau information out on the number of medically uninsured Americans is alarming. It sets the overall number at 46. 3 million people at the end of 2008, making a strong case for needed reform of the health care system. Today, states are beginning to get the state-by-state numbers, the first time they have been included in census data, and it isn’t pretty.

As InvestigateWest has pointed out before, the strong tie between jobs and health care benefits in this country makes a good case for reform. Timothy D. McBride, a professor of public health at Washington University in St. Louis quoted in the Los Angeles Times, calls these Census numbers figures “alarming,” because once again they underscore the decline in employer-sponsored health care coverage. When jobs go away, health care goes away, and the American public is left vulnerable in a way few other Western nations’ citizens are.

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik notes that the percentage of  the country covered by employer-sponsored plans dropped last year to just over 58 percent, down from a high of 64 percent in 2000. That’s the lowest level since 1993.

These numbers “effectively punch holes in the most common misrepresentations that reform opponents make about the uninsured,” Hiltzik writes. ” The anti-reform lobby says the group comprises mostly illegal immigrants; people who can afford insurance and forswear it; candidates for public assistance who don’t bother to sign up; and people who are uncovered only for brief periods and thus (presumably) don’t warrant our concern.”

In Texas, the state’s overall uninsured rate is 24 percent, the highest in the nation, compared to a national average of 15 percent,according to a report in today’s Houston Chronicle. In one county, Harris, the rate of uninsured residents is nearly 27 percent.

Reporter Mike Snyder gets perspectives from two physicans on either side of the reform debate:

“If we expanded Medicare to everybody, it would solve this problem,” said Ana M. Malinow, a Ben Taub Hospital pediatrician who is active in health care reform advocacy groups.

But William Fleming, a Houston neurologist who is the president of the Texas Medical Association, said coverage doesn’t necessarily equate to access to good care. Many doctors don’t accept new patients covered by Medicare or Medicaid, the government system for the poor, he said. And the federal government projects that without changes in the Medicare system, its reimbursement rate to doctors will decline by 21 percent in January, Fleming said.

“That’s just not sustainable,” Fleming said. “I think we need to fix Medicare before we start any new government health care programs.”

Meanwhile, Colorado has found huge disparities in the number of uninsured people, the Denver Post reports. While maintaining an average of 17 percent, just above the national average, the state finds a 25 percent rate of uninsured folks in Aurora, where younger residents with lower-paying jobs reside, and a low of 10 percent in more affluent areas.

By region, the uninsured were most likely to be found in the West and the South.

By Rita Hibbard

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