“Now we must continue to implement this law to protect middle-class families and those persons trying to find stable employment and health insurance,” Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association and a high-profile advocate of the law, said in a statement. She urged governors to expand Medicaid eligibility. “The need for a strong, sustainable safety net is as real and important as ever,” she said.
The Census Bureau said 260.2 million people were insured last year, up from 256.6 million in 2010.
The number of uninsured last year dropped to 48.6 million from 50 million the year before, to 15.7% from 16.3% of the population, the largest decline since the Census adjusted its methodology in 1999. The Census Bureau reported a drop, to 27.7% from 29.8%, in the number of uninsured among those ages 19 to 25. Under an Affordable Care Act provision that went into effect in September 2010, young adults are eligible to keep insurance coverage through a parent until they turn 26.
“This would seem to be a turning point,” said Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a health policy foundation that supports the law. Davis said the policy expanding coverage of young adults, along with an aging population increasingly eligible for Medicare, contributed to what could be a sustained drop in the number of uninsured.
“Once we get to 2014 and we get major financing for universal health insurance coverage, we really can begin to see significant declines that are very dramatic,” Davis said, assuming that the Affordable Care Act remains law. “As long as it stays on the books, I think we're headed for better times than we've experienced over the last decade.”
Davis singled out Massachusetts, which enacted health reforms in 2006, from the state data on uninsured as evidence of the role that public policy can play to expand insurance coverage. About 3.4% of Massachusetts residents were uninsured in 2011, compared with about 23.8% in Texas, she said. “That just to me points to you can do something about this,” she said.
The rate of private insurance coverage, which has declined steadily in the past decade, was statistically unchanged from 2010 at 63.9%. The number of privately insured was also unchanged at 197.3 million. Leighton Ku, a health policy professor at George Washington University, said that may be explained by the coverage gains among young adults, who accounted for 40% of the decline in uninsured last year.
Ku said the health reform law mandate that prevents states from reducing Medicaid was also a factor in the coverage gains. States continue to struggle from the economic downturn and might have otherwise cut Medicaid rolls.
John Holahan, director of the Health Policy Research Center for the Urban Institute, said the economic recovery, however halting, may also have contributed to the stable private insurance rate. As the economy starts “to come back a little bit” it helps prevent the layoffs of recent years and deterioration in employer-sponsored coverage, he said.
Roughly 170 million people were covered by employer-sponsored insurance, or 55.1%, which was largely unchanged from 2010. Employer-sponsored insurance is the largest subset of private coverage.