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More Americans Lack Health Insurance

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the number of Americans without health insurance grew to an all time high of 47 million people last year. That is an increase of more than two million people from 2005. The number of children without health coverage also rose. With health care already heating up as a political issue, the new figures are likely to further raise the stakes in the debate.

Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, says the increase in the number of uninsured is not hard to explain. The average family's income is rising slowly, if at all, while the cost of their employer-sponsored health insurance premiums is going up much faster.

"What the numbers seem to be showing is the slow fraying of the employment-based system, and the fundamental bedrock issue is that insurance is increasingly unaffordable, just not affordable for average working people," Altman says.

As a result, more and more people who have jobs are going without health insurance. Altman says the size of the increase in the number of people who are uninsured is likely to have a major impact on the presidential campaign trail.

"These are very big numbers and you're going to start to see these numbers, these increases in the ranks of the uninsured, appear in the speeches of virtually all of the candidates," Altman says.

The increase in the number of uninsured people is likely to have a political impact on Capitol Hill, as well. Congress and President Bush are currently at loggerheads over legislation to renew the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. The program is set to expire at the end of next month.

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress want to expand SCHIP, but President Bush does not.

Political scientist Jonathan Oberlander, of the University of North Carolina, says the spike in the number of uninsured children — 600,000 more last year — gives those who want to expand the program new ammunition.

"I think this puts the Bush administration in a very difficult position of arguing against expanding SCHIP," Oberlander says. "And this is the second year in a row that the number of uninsured children has increased."

But supporters of a more market-based health system would prefer to help the uninsured by giving them tax breaks to buy their own private insurance.

"That's really the public policy question," says Grace-Marie Turner, head of the conservative Galen Institute, a non-profit research organization devoted to health policy. "Do we want to put more and more people on taxpayer supported coverage, or do we want to move to a system in which people can have coverage that they own and keep with them as they move from job to job?"

Meanwhile, Oberlander says he is not convinced the new census numbers will actually prompt the next president and the new Congress to fix the health insurance problem.

"This adds fuel to the fire, but the fire's been burning for decades. And we have an amazing ability to walk over it," he says.

In other words, all talk and no action. That is what happened in the 1990s, the last time health care was a major issue in the presidential campaign.

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Julie Rovner
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