Job Loss, Health Costs Pushed Uninsured to 52 Million in U.S.

Unemployment and rising expenses caused 9 million Americans to lose health insurance during the past two years, according to researchers backed by a group advocating access to health care.

Losses of coverage helped swell the ranks of uninsured adults in the U.S. to 52 million in 2010, according to a study released today by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that says it backs research aimed at expanding and improving care. An additional 73 million adults had difficulties paying for health care and 75 million deferred treatment because they couldn’t afford it, researchers said.

President Barack Obama’s health overhaul will provide access to insurance to almost all of the currently uninsured through expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor and through private health plans, said Sara Collins, a study author. Federal subsidies and rules on affordability and mandated benefits will allow many to buy coverage by 2014 when the law is due to take full effect, she said. The law is being challenged in court cases questioning its constitutionality.

“The numbers underscore the need for this reform, particularly for low- and moderate-income families,” Collins, an economist at the Commonwealth Fund, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “If the law doesn’t move forward, it will be devastating for these families.”

Estimates Differ

Estimates of the number of uninsured Americans have varied, partly because of differences in methodology. For the Commonwealth Fund report, a person was counted as uninsured if he or she lacked coverage at any time during 2010 according to self-reporting in a survey whose results were extrapolated to the nation.

The U.S. Census Bureau said in September that the number of people without coverage rose to 50.7 million in 2009 from 46.3 million in 2008.

Forty-nine million Americans reported spending 10 percent or more of their income on insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs last year, according to the Commonwealth Fund study. The research was based on telephone interviews conducted from July 14 to Nov. 30 with more than 4,000 adults aged 19 or older.

Employer-based insurance expenses rose 43 percent from 2003 to 2009, while deductibles on these plans increased 77 percent, Collins said.

“The cost is driving the reduction in coverage by small-business employers, and that’s a big part of the problem that disproportionately affects poorer families,” Collins said. “This is precisely the group that will be most helped by reform.”

Using Savings

Asked about how they paid medical bills, 40 percent of respondents in the survey said they used all of their savings while 24 percent said they incurred credit-card debt and 10 percent said they took out a mortgage or another form of loan, the researchers reported.

An estimated 50 million Americans were without health insurance in 2007, according to the Commonwealth Fund report. The U.S. monthly unemployment rate rose from 5 percent in January 2008 to 9.4 percent last December.

The health insurance law signed by Obama in March 2010 will make medical insurance and care more affordable by providing small business tax credits, banning lifetime benefit caps and requiring a package of essential benefits, Collins said. Creation of statewide insurance exchanges may also allow insurers to better spread the risk across a larger and healthier population, she said.

The law will add as many as 32 million Americans to ranks of the insured in 2014, according to an estimate last year by the Congressional Budget Office.

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