The number of Americans without health insurance fell for the first time since 2007, as many younger than age 26 took advantage of a new law allowing them to stay on their parents’ plans.
About 540,000 more young people were insured in 2011, helping reduce the proportion of uninsured people to 15.7 percent, the Census Bureau said today in a report. About 48.6 million people were uninsured last year, compared with 49.9 million in 2010, the largest numerical drop since at least 1999, according to Census data.
The proportion of uncovered U.S. residents ages 19 to 25 improved to 27.7 percent, a 2.1 percentage point decline from a year earlier. President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care law lets parents keep their children on their plans until they turn 26.
“I don’t think people were expecting the young adults provision to have such a noticeable effect,” said Tom Buchmueller, a professor of risk management and insurance at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. “Clearly, there’s been a lot of take-up and it’s met a real need, because we know in today’s job market kids are leaving college without a lot of great options.”
The proportion of people in the country without insurance has risen since the turn of the century, a major impetus for Obama’s effort to overhaul the health system. There were 44.8 million people, or 14.9 percent of the population, without insurance in 2008, at the end of President George W. Bush’s term, and 36.6 million, or 13.1 percent, uninsured in 2000, at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration, according to Census data.
The health law, called the Affordable Care Act, will expand Medicaid, the state-run program for the poor, and open new government-run insurance exchanges that may expand coverage to about 30 million people starting in 2014.
Obama’s administration had estimated that 3.1 million people who would otherwise lack insurance this year took advantage of the health law to join their parents’ coverage.
The Census data showing increased coverage of young adults “is a clear signal that the Affordable Care Act is working,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington that supports the law.
About 63.9 percent of Americans had private health insurance in 2011, unchanged from 2010, the Census said. It was the first year in a decade that the proportion of people with private insurance didn’t fall.
“The number of people who have private insurance is stable and that’s really good news obviously, and we’re working very hard to help employers make that possible,” said Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington lobby group, in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
Private insurance coverage probably remained stable in part because health-care costs have been growing less quickly for the past two years, Pollack said. Tax credits that the health law offers to small businesses to help them pay for insurance for their workers may also be helping, he said.
Premiums for family plans offered by employers increased about 4.5 percent in 2012, half as much as a year earlier, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California-based nonprofit research group, reported yesterday.
Policy makers need to keep an eye on health-care cost growth as the nation prepares to implement the rest of the 2010 health law, Ignagni said.
“That’s going to be the name of the game for the business community,” she said. “They’re going to look at what are we paying now, what are we going to pay in the future, can we afford to continue to offer health insurance? It’s very important for our economy that this issue of affordability is front and center so they can make an affirmative decision there.”
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act if he’s elected and replace the law with policies he says would reduce costs and allow the uninsured to access coverage. He has not detailed his health plan.