Census numbers show healthcare crunch

A new report underscores President Obama's point about the need for security and stability in health insurance

Published September 10, 2009 11:15PM (EDT)

Individual stories about the failings of healthcare abound -- and with 46 million people without insurance, nearly everyone knows someone whose life has been decimated by medical bills. A day after President Obama pushes Congress to act on healthcare reforms, the Census Bureau released new data Thursday on who did and didn't have insurance last year. Though the number of uninsured Americans didn't change much from 2007 to 2008, a look at the survey reveals some flux among the haves and the have nots.

While there were minor changes in who is covered (slightly fewer whites; slightly more Hispanics; essentially no change among blacks), there were also detectable shifts in type of insurance people are getting. If Obama is going to be pegged as a socialist for suggesting a public option, it might behoove his accusers to look at the numbers -- more than a quarter of the population already gets government insurance. In 2008, 28.4 percent of Americans were covered by either Medicare or Medicaid, totaling 45.6 million people between them. In turn, the number of people covered by private insurance decreased between 2007 and 2008, the primary shift being in employment-based coverage: 1.1 million fewer people were covered in 2008 than 2007, either because their jobs stopped covering them, or because they lost their jobs altogether.

Those estimate are not mutually exclusive; people can be covered by more than one type of health insurance during the year. Particularly in this economic climate, it is not unlikely for an individual to be covered by employment-based insurance for part of the year, only to switch to Medicaid once they find themselves among the nation's unemployed (we'll save those numbers for a different day).

Essentially, the Census report underscores the point Obama was making -- the healthcare system in America is unsustainable in the long run. Even people who have insurance through their jobs today might lose them tomorrow, and employers that offer health insurance now may not be able to keep up with rising premium costs. The timing for the report's release could hardly have been better for the administration. 

By Lauren Evans

Lauren Evans is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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