A U.S. Census Bureau report showing a 4.1% increase between 1996 and 1997 in the number of Americans without health insurance sparked new calls for government action last week.
The bureau said 43.4 million people did not have health insurance in 1997-up from 41.7 million in 1996-for an increase of 1.7 million.
Of total Americans, 16.1% were without healthcare coverage in 1997, up from 15.6% without coverage in 1996.
The 1997 numbers also show an accelerated loss of healthcare coverage for Americans. In 1996 the number of uninsured had increased by only 1 million-roughly 2.4%-over 1995 figures.
The uninsured are mostly young adults, Hispanics, part-time workers and foreign-born people. They typically have less education than insured people, the bureau said. More than one-quarter of people in households with annual income of less than $25,000 were uninsured.
The spike in the ranks of the uninsured added fuel to the organizations that have been lobbying for years for government action to expand coverage.
"There are a lot of things out there (that) if put together . . . should compel political leaders to start thinking about this again," said Jack Bresch, legislative affairs director with the Catholic Health Association.
James Bentley, senior vice president for strategic policy planning at the American Hospital Association, said welfare reform might account for much of the increase.
Many people have lost their eligibility for cash assistance but remain eligible for Medicaid, he said. However, they are not aware of their eligibility because they no longer see welfare caseworkers. As a result, they end up without insurance.
Bentley added that increasing numbers of the uninsured and a federal budget surplus could drive federal action next year.
"As we move into a time of budget surpluses, we have the prospect of looking at other resources," Bentley said. "The question is, Do we have the national will to do it?"
At deadline, no AHA officials were available to comment on whether they expect hospitals' uncompensated-care costs to increase. In 1996 uncompensated care cost hospitals $18 billion, or 6.1% of total costs, a percentage that has not changed since 1994.
Carrie Gavora, a healthcare policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said employers are relying more on part-time workers and independent contractors, who frequently aren't offered health insurance as a benefit.
"It points again to the flaws in tying health insurance to the place of work," Gavora said.