By GENARO C. ARMAS
WASHINGTON – The number of people without health insurance decreased last year for the first time since the Census Bureau began compiling the data in 1987, a new trend that health care advocates said was due in large part to America’s robust economy.
About 42.5 million people, or 15.5 percent of the population, lacked insurance for all of 1999, compared with 44.2 million, or 16.3 percent, in 1998, according to data released Thursday.
The number of uninsured children fell by 1.5 percentage points to 10 million or 13.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s annual report on health insurance coverage in America.
Analysts highlighted two factors most responsible for the drop: more employers offering health coverage as a way to lure or keep workers in a tight labor market and healthy economy, and the Child Health Insurance Program, enacted by Congress in 1997 to assist low-income families.
The report showed that 62.8 percent of Americans had coverage through an employment-related health insurance plan, compared with 62 percent in 1998. The percentage of those covered under Medicare remained constant at 13.2. There was a 0.1 percentage point decline in Medicaid coverage, to 10.2 percent in 1999.
“Although I am pleased with today’s development, there is much work to be done,” President Clinton said. “We need to encourage states that are not doing as well to accelerate their activities in reaching out to uninsured children. And we need to provide targeted programs to build on their success.”
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, has proposed a number of health insurance initiatives, including a tax credit of up to $2,000 per family to help low-income working Americans buy health insurance.
Democratic candidate Al Gore has proposed expanding the federal-state health plan for children to enroll more children and allow parents to join.
With the good economy, “employers are competing with each other, health benefits are of the attractions that are offered,” said Diane Rowland, executive director for the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.
But, “we’re still not able to make a dent in the overall number,” she said.
Both health care reform advocates and industry supporters used the report to promote their positions on an issue that has drawn attention on Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign.
Chip Kahn, president of the Health Insurance Association of America said the data proved that “a private, employer-based system works.”
He cited figures showing that since 1993, the number of people covered under employment-based policies increased from 148 million to 172 million.
“It’s a function of more jobs being created and a tight labor market which is encouraging more employers to offer more coverage,” said Kahn, placing the imperative on Congress “to reduce that number by tens of millions.”
But Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer group Families USA, noted that the report also showed that 32.4 percent of people living below the poverty line remained uninsured, along with 47.5 percent of low-income, full-time workers.
“Many people lost health coverage when they moved from welfare into entry-level jobs that have no health benefits,” Pollack said.
Among the states, 25.6 percent of residents in New Mexico were uninsured in 1999, the highest in the country. Texas ranked next-to-last, with 23.3 percent; in 1998, it was 50th at 24.5 percent.
Rhode Island had the smallest percentage of uninsured in 1999, 6.9 percent, followed by Minnesota at 8 percent.
Among the report’s other findings:
_More Hispanics (33.4 percent) were likely to be uninsured than any other of the major racial or ethnic group. Still, the percentage fell from 35.3 in 1998.
_Adults age 18 to 24 remained the least likely to be uninsured (29 percent), but the figure was 30 percent in 1998.
_The percentage of uninsured foreign-born residents declined from 34.1 percent to 33.4 percent. The percentage for U.S.-born residents fell nine-tenths of a percentage point, to 13.5 percent.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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