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Behind The Numbers, A Diminishing Sense Of Urgency

After a summer of disappointing economic news, the recent Census report on the uninsured was a rare bit of sunshine.  The number of uninsured Americans declined by about 3 percent, or 1.34 million, to 48.6 million in 2011.  This was the largest one-year numerical decline in twelve years.  There were “only” about 1.7 million more uninsured in 2011 than there were in 2006, before the devastating recession.

Medicaid’s vital role. The search for policy fingerprints on these findings points directly to Medicaid. For all the controversy over this program, the safety net did its job.  Medicaid enrollment rose another 4.4 percent in 2011, or 2.2 million people, likely masking continued shrinkage in private insurance coverage.   If Medicaid rolls had not expanded by 10 million folks from 2006 to 2011, the number of uninsured would have soared due to the recession.

Digging deeper into the Census numbers, one surprise was the relatively modest decline in the number of uninsured between the ages of 19 and 25, about 540,000, or about 40 percent of the overall drop. The reported reduction in the uncovered 19-25 year olds falls far short of the 3.1 million newly covered GenY’ers claimed by the Department of Health and Human Services due to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to retain them on parents’ health policies.

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The Massachusetts Numbers

Last week the Census Bureau released new numbers showing that 5.6 percent of the population in Massachusetts remained without health insurance coverage. That’s a 42 percent drop in the number of the state’s uninsured since the law took effect in 2006. A new study by the Cambridge Health Alliance, one of the state’s safety net providers, showed who was left out, putting a human face on those without insurance. The findings are illuminating given that the Bay State’s health law is the model for the national law, which takes full effect in 2014, and the Romney-Perry feud often flares up around the topic of health reform in the state.

The local press, primarily the Boston Globe and WBUR, covered the story; the national media whiffed on its implications for federal reform. If reform in Massachusetts cut the number of uninsured roughly in half, the same is likely to happen nationally, according to government data. The latest Census Bureau numbers show that nearly fifty million people have no health coverage; the Congressional Budget Office estimates about twenty-three million will be still be uninsured later in the decade. It was as if the national media has forgotten that Massachusetts is a harbinger of what will happen nationally. Or perhaps it’s easier for the national media to cover the he said/he said back and forth between Perry and Romney.

Writing on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog, Carey Goldberg started with an intriguing lead that showed she could sniff out a story—and showed why others should, too.

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The Safety Net Is Working

Most of the newspaper coverage of the just-released Census Bureau data on health insurance coverage has focused changes in coverage between 2009 and 2010.  Since the advent of the Great Recession, the reduction in health insurance coverage has been dominated by the simple fact that as unemployment has risen, since most families with prime-age earners receive health insurance as a fringe benefit of employment, the number of uninsured has risen.  The increase was large from 2008 to 2009 when unemployment rose rapidly.  From 2009 to 2010, when unemployment stabilized at high levels, the increase was smaller, although still disturbingly large.

If one looks back a bit farther, however, some noteworthy differences by age group emerge, as shown in the table.  Health insurance coverage fell for all age groups but one from 2007 to 2010 and over the longer period starting with the boom year of 1999.  That coverage would have fallen in both periods is unsurprising because, as noted, health insurance for most people is linked to employment and unemployment rose over both of those periods.

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