When reality and rhetoric clash, data suddenly become out of date.
The number and percentage of people without health insurance dropped last year, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week, but healthcare experts who support efforts to expand coverage called the latest figures obsolete.
Those healthcare policy experts said Congress shouldn't use the census numbers to abandon efforts to expand health insurance coverage to poor people. Earlier this year, Congress set aside $28 billion over three years for potential programs to expand health insurance coverage for the poor, yet lawmakers have not passed legislation to use the money for that purpose.
The percentage of Americans who went without health insurance all year dropped to 14% in 2000 from 14.3% in 1999, the Census Bureau said in its annual report on health insurance coverage. In raw numbers, the drop was more than a half-million: to 38.7 million last year from 39.3 million in 1999.
It was the second consecutive year of declines in the percentage and the number of uninsured Americans (See chart).
But healthcare experts are warning that the number of uninsured people probably is on the rise again because a slowing economy in 2001-an economy that has braked hard since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last month-has led to massive layoffs.
"I don't think there's anything but a cause for alarm," said Josie Martin, senior vice president for public affairs with the Federation of American Hospitals. "I'm very concerned that the cross pressures in the economy will lead to a sharp rise in the number of uninsured people."
"We have a really different economic climate since (2000)," said Kate Sullivan, healthcare policy director with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Healthcare costs have risen exponentially...and the unemployment numbers are higher."
Ronald Pollack, executive director of the healthcare consumers group Families USA, said the decline in the number of uninsured last year was the result of rising enrollment in State Children's Health Insurance Programs. "The 600,000 decrease in the gross number of uninsured Americans is attributable to an almost 700,000 decrease in the number of uninsured children," he said.
Pollack joined other analysts in warning that the numbers will be worse next year.
The percentage of poor and those just above the poverty level without health insurance dropped to 22.7% last year from 23.2% in 1999. But for some families with higher incomes, the uninsured rate rose. The percentage of uninsured people in households with income from $50,000 to $75,000 rose to 11% last year from 10.2% in 1999.
Sullivan said that rise could stem from employers' increasing the insurance cost-sharing burden on their employees as healthcare costs continue to go up, and more employees are choosing to drop coverage rather than absorb higher costs.