Health insurance falling away, even for working people

More than three-quarters of Americans who lack health insurance are members of working families, according to a new report from Families USA, a non-profit health care advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Increasingly, the report suggests, members of the middle class find themselves uninsured.

In the latest of its annual estimates of the uninsured population, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in September 2003 that there were 43.6 million Americans without health coverage for the entire previous year. But the Families USA report says that in some ways, that undercounts the problem. Based on Census Bureau data, the group estimates that 81.8 million people were uninsured at least part of the previous two years; since seniors over 65 are covered by federal programs, that 81 million figure means almost one in three (32.2 percent) Americans under 65 were without health insurance for all or part of 2002 and 2003.

Poor people are of course the most likely to be uninsured, and for those under 65 who are at or below the poverty line, 60 percent were uninsured at least part of the time in 2002-2003. But even families earning much more are often uninsured: 25 percent of those earning between three and four times the poverty line, and nearly 14 percent of those earning more than four times the poverty line.

In Oregon — population 3.5 million — there are currently an estimated 511,000 uninsured, and over a period of two years, 968,000 people were uninsured for at least six months. Of those 968,000, 78.1 percent were members of working families, and 46.8 percent earned more than twice the federal poverty level.

Lack of health coverage isn’t just a problem for those who are uninsured, said Maribeth Healey, executive director of Oregonians for Health Security, a coalition of unions and other groups that advocates for affordable health care.

“Those people that are uninsured have no preventive care. When they get sick, which they do, they end up in the emergency room, which increases costs for the rest.”

For a time, Healey pointed out, the Oregon Health Plan used federal and state money to cover many who weren’t otherwise insured, keeping them out of emergency rooms, in effect reducing the cost burden on other Oregonian health care payers. Now that program is on its last legs -

Healey plans to make health care reform a major issue in the 2005 session of the Oregon Legislature. “We cannot just sit back and hope they’ll address the issue. We have to demand that they do something,” Healey said. “Oregonians ought to vote like their health depends on it.”

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