The number of Americans with health insurance fell in 2009 for the first time since the government began tracking the figure in 1987, the Census Bureau reported.
About 253.6 million people had public or private health coverage last year, down from 255.1 million in 2008. The decline came as Congress debated a health overhaul that is projected to expand coverage to 32 million uninsured beginning in 2012.
Most of the programs in President Obama’s health law, passed in March, won’t kick in until 2014. The recession has meanwhile eroded private insurance coverage as millions of Americans lost their jobs, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health consumer advocacy group that supported Obama’s law.
“When people lose jobs, it makes enormous sense to expect that the number of people without health insurance will increase,” Pollack said in a telephone interview yesterday.
About 50.7 million people lacked health insurance in 2009, up almost 10 percent from 46.3 million in 2008.
The number of Americans with private insurance coverage declined about 3.2 percent, to 194.5 million, the Census said. That was partly offset by 6.6 percent increase in enrollment in public health programs such as Medicaid, to 93.2 million.
Medicaid, the federal-state health entitlement for the poor, enrolled about 47.8 million people last year, the bureau said, or 15.7 percent of the population. That is the highest enrollment the government has ever recorded for the program.
As the number of people with insurance fell, the poverty rate rose to the highest level since 1994, to 14.3 percent of the population. Median household income was stable at $49,777.
David Johnson, chief of the Census Bureau’s housing and household economic statistics division, said in a conference call today that the two figures suggested the recession hurt the poor more than wealthier families.
“I think the downturn may have affected more people on the lower end, as we saw with the poverty rate going up, than in the middle,” he said.
The Census reports annually on health insurance coverage, poverty and income in the U.S. by surveying about 100,000 homes.