Stateline Story

Fewer Had Health Coverage in 2001

The number of uninsured Americans climbed to 41.2 million, or nearly 15 percent of the population last year. Experts blame the 3.5 percent increase on the slowing economy and the effects of the terrorist attacks. Plus, the cost of health care and health insurance has shot up.

Economists and health policy experts blame the 3.5 percent increase on more layoffs, the slowing economy and the effects of the terrorist attacks. Plus, the cost of health care and health insurance has shot up.

The proportion of people without health insurance ranged from about 7 percent in Rhode Island to 23.2 percent in New Mexico, based on the Census' three-year averages for 1999, 2000 and 2001. Texas shared the title for highest uninsured rate with New Mexico.

In nine states-- Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas--- the percentage of people lacking health insurance increased in the past two years.

The proportion of people with coverage increased in 14 states--- Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

In Minnesota and Rhode Island, 93 percent of residents have insurance, said Robert Mills, statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau.

States where the percentage of uninsured fell in 2001 may have felt the effects of economic recession later, or, "It may be the recession didn't hit there as hard," said Aaron Katz, director of the health policy analysis program at the University of Washington.

Katz said even though the survey's sample size is small, the Census data is important because "it's an indicator of how well our health care system is doing. It's also an indicator of how strong a factor the larger economy plays in our system because we base so much of our health coverage on employment."

Last year's economic tough times caused some employers to either cut back on health benefits or shift costs to employees, making coverage unaffordable, Katz said.

This year's Census report also revised the 2000 estimate of uninsured, increasing the earlier figure nearly 3 percent to 39.8 million people.

Ron Pollack, executive director of consumer group Families USA, said the increased number of uninsured Americans during the past two years is a forerunner of larger increases to come because of four factors: higher health costs, employers passing on costs to workers, unemployment growth, and state cutbacks in Medicaid programs.

"It's a safe assumption that the number of uninsured is going to skyrocket," Pollack said.