It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out (although The Bloviator pointed the way yesterday and he’s as smart as a rocket scientist). An increase in unemployment plus fewer people getting health insurance at work has led to an increase in over 2.4 million people being uninsured. The New York Times article has the Census Bureau reporting that in 2002 43.6 million or 15.2% of the population were uninsured. (That’s actually down from 16.8% in 1998 before the full impact of the SCHIP program took millions of kids out of uninsurance into Medicaid, or something like it). 61.3% of Americans are covered by their or their family’s employer, and that’s down from 63.6% two years ago.
It’s worth remembering that there are three types of uninsured. Those who’ve been uninsured for a year or more (about 6%), those uninsured at any one time (about 15%) and those uninsured at some point during a year (about 25%). (NOTE ADDED LATER The Bloviator points out that in fact the Census Bureau reports that the 15.2%/43.6 million were uninsured for the whole year. I may have missed a trick here, and I’ll report back what the 6% refers to). The 43.6 million is the middle group, which means that some 80-odd million were uninsured at some time in the past year. The political ramifications of uninsurance — and they are the only ones that matter — depend on how likely people think they are to lose their health insurance, and therefore face the risk of a financial crisis brought on by lacking health insurance.
We got to the Clinton reform process because in the 1990-2 recession enough people felt worried that losing health insurance was something that might happen to them, and not just to other people. At that stage surveys suggested that over 30% of Americans wanted a complete rebuilding of the health system. But by the time the legislation was brought to Congress in 1994 unemployment had fallen and fewer than 20% said they wanted complete system rebuilding. I don’t have the current numbers to that question, (although I shall go begging for them from my friends at Harris). However, health care is moving its way up the list of issues for voters, and EBRI reports that only 60% of those with employer sponsored insurance are confident that it’ll be there for them in the future (full report here), and most importantly that, "among all Americans, support for a government plan jumped from 25 to 36 percent in the past year".
I paraphrase HHS secretary Tommy Thompson’s response as "we should do better but we won’t". Meanwhile the Democratic candidates are getting serious enough about the issue to be sniping at each other about who said what when about Medicare. This means that we are well ahead of where we were at this stage in 1991 when we still were trying to figure out who Bill Clinton was, although we didn’t then have the other minor distractions of occupying Iraq and fighting terrorism. So expect these numbers to increase the level of grandstanding on the Democratic side, and maybe even get the White House a little concerned. Although in my biased view it looks like they’ve written off any domestic issues as a platform for 2004.