Study: Number of Under-Insured Adults Soaring

The number of Americans who are considered under-insured is growing. According to a new study, the number of under-insured, working-age adults ballooned by 60 percent in the past four years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And it's not just the number of Americans with no health insurance that's growing. A new study finds that more and more people who are covered still can't afford to get sick. NPR's Julie Rovner looks at the rising problem of the under-insured.

JULIE ROVNER: Joleda Aikman(ph) of Cleveland thought her family was taken care of on the health-insurance front. Her husband, who works for a national home-improvement chain, has $275 taken out of his paycheck every two weeks to cover the premiums for their family of three. Then, last year, her husband's neck gave out.

Ms. JOLEDA AIKMAN: He had to have three disks removed and a steel plate put in, and he was out of work for two months.

ROVNER: And the Aikmans' medical bills, even with the insurance, began to mount.

Ms. AIKMAN: It's just the co-pays, the deductibles and simply stuff that they did not cover are piling up so much that I - it's just unbearable right now.

ROVNER: Aikman says she's not one to shirk her bills, but what the family owes is simply more than they can afford, particularly with such high insurance premiums.

Ms. AIKMAN: I'm getting phone calls a couple times a week, and I tell them I'm just paying what I can, and I do. I just pay what I can, and I'm sorry. There's nothing else I can do about it. But what can you do? I'm already paying $550 a month.

ROVNER: Aikman is one of a growing legion of Americans with health insurance who are still considered under-insured. According to the new study by researchers from the Commonwealth Fund, the number of under-insured working-age adults has ballooned by 60 percent in just the past four years. Cathy Schoen is the study's lead author.

Ms. CATHY SCHOEN (Commonwealth Fund): What we have is a whole group of people that have insurance, and, in fact, when they get sick, they are finding you can have insurance all year and still go bankrupt.

ROVNER: Researchers counted people as underinsured if they spent at least 10 percent of their income on medical expenses or five percent if their income was below about $40,000 a year. They were also considered under-insured if they had health insurance with a very high deductible, more than five percent of their family's income.

Using those definitions, the study found that more than 40 percent of the under-65 adult population was either under-insured or lacked health coverage altogether in 2007, and Schoen says the biggest increase came in middle and upper-income families.

Ms. SCHOEN: And the under-insured rates in that group tripled.

ROVNER: And being under-insured has real consequences for people's health, Schoen says.

Ms. SCHOEN: They put off going for care when they're sick, prescriptions when they're sick. They don't follow up on recommended care at rates that look extraordinarily like the uninsured.

ROVNER: About the only silver lining, says Schoen, is that as the problem reaches increasingly into the middle class, there may be more of an imperative for policymakers to finally address it. Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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