- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The number of Americans without health insurance coverage year round is about 10 million to 20 million fewer than the 40 million estimate often cited, says a Congressional Budget Office report released this week.

The CBO report said the estimate of 40 million uninsured Americans, which comes from the Census Bureau’s “Current Population Survey,” “overstates the number of people who are uninsured all year.” It more accurately reflects a snapshot of the number of people who are uninsured at a specific point during the year, the CBO report said.

“Far from being a static group, the uninsured population is constantly changing,” the CBO report explained. “Some people are uninsured for long periods, but more are without coverage for shorter times, such as between jobs.”

“CBO’s analysis reveals some good news — fewer individuals are long-term uninsured than previously thought,” said Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He added that the “analysis is helpful in considering solutions to providing health care to these individuals.”

The CBO report was requested by Mr. Thomas, a California Republican.

The CBO’s analysis found that for all of 1998, the most recent year for which data are available, 21 million to 31 million Americans were without health insurance all year. Between 57 million and 59 million people were uninsured for either part of the year or throughout the year. It found that 39 million to 42 million people were uninsured at a specific point in time during 1998.

In reaching its conclusions, the CBO looked at four federally sponsored national surveys.

The CBO also tracked people who became uninsured between July 1996 and June 1997, following them for several years and finding that 45 percent were uninsured for no more than four months, 26 percent were uninsured for five to 12 months, and 16 percent were without insurance for more than two years.

Those who experienced the yearlong uninsured spells tend to be poor, less-educated and Hispanic, the CBO analysis found. People 19 to 24 years old also are more likely to be uninsured all year. The majority of those uninsured all year are in families where at least one person works.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group pushing for universal health coverage in the United States, said the important thing is “the direction in which the numbers are going. … The trend right now is up.”

Mr. Pollack’s group did its own poll in March and found that 74.7 million Americans younger than 65 were uninsured at some point during 2001 to 2002.

But Merrill Matthews, president of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, said that number, taken over two years, is “nothing but an attempt to skew the perception of what’s going on,” make the numbers seem bigger and “create more pressure” on Congress.

He said the new CBO estimates more accurately reflect the fact that “the number of people who are uninsured for a longer period is a lower number.”

Others said Congress still needs to act, even in light of the new CBO estimates.

“Nothing in that study suggests there isn’t an urgent need that needs to be addressed,” said Jim Manely, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “It’s an unacceptably high number of Americans without health insurance.”

Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Health Plans, said because the uninsured group is diverse and changing, “there is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Republicans favor offering tax credits to help individuals buy private health insurance, while many Democrats want to extend existing government programs like Medicaid to cover more people. Some Democrats like Mr. Kennedy favor universal health coverage.

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