Census Data: 1 in 6 Americans Lacks Health Insurance

The number of Americans without health insurance hit a record high in 2009. Supporters and opponents of the new health law are debating what the future holds for the uninsured.

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One in six Americans lacked health insurance last year, according to the Census Bureau. Supporters and opponents of the new health law dispute whether the problem of the uninsured will get better or worse. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: What's not in dispute are the new numbers on the uninsured. The number of people who lacked insurance last year reached nearly 51 million, said David Johnson of the Census Bureau.

Mr. DAVID JOHNSON (U.S. Census Bureau): This is the highest number of uninsured since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected.

ROVNER: The total number of uninsured was only one of several records set in 2009 - none of them good. The number of Americans with private insurance and with insurance provided by an employer fell to new lows. And for the first time, the total number of Americans with health insurance declined. Robert Greenstein of the liberal think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the numbers point to an inescapable conclusion about the health system.

Mr. ROBERT GREENSTEIN (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): We have an ongoing pattern of an erosion of employer-based converge, but it becomes much sharper during economic downturns.

ROVNER: While most of the provisions of the new health law that will help people get coverage in a major way don't kick in for three more years, Greenstein says that repealing it would actually make the problem of the uninsured substantially worse. That's partly because employers have been dropping health coverage all along, even in the absence of a bad economy.

Mr. GREENSTEIN: And in future recessions, we'd have a repeat of what we saw in 2009, because there'd really be no offsetting factor.

ROVNER: In other words, no new insurance exchanges where adults will be able to go to buy insurance. Those start in 2014. But Robert Moffit of the conservative Heritage Foundation says he thinks the new law will actually make the problem of the uninsured worse. Not only, he says, does the law do little between now and 2014 to address the problem...

Mr. ROBERT MOFFIT (Heritage Foundation): It will introduce new incentives which are, in fact, likely to create even more problems, largely because of higher health insurance premiums, higher health care costs.

ROVNER: And, he says, prompt still more employers to drop health insurance for their workers. No matter who's right, though, at least for the next few years, the number of people without health insurance is likely to remain painfully high.

Julie Rovner NPR News, Washington.

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