Who are the uninsured?

by on December 4, 2003 at 7:55 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Medicine | Permalink

As the Democratic candidates call for various versions of national health insurance, we will hear a familiar fact many times, namely how many Americans lack medical insurance. According to one estimate, it is over fifteen percent of the population, which amounts to about 43.6 million people.

But who are these people? In reality many of them are immigrants. Here are two simple facts:

Immigrants who arrived between 1994 and 1998 and their children accounted for an astonishing 59 percent or 2.7 million of the growth in the size of the uninsured population since 1993.

The total uninsured population is one-third larger (32.7 million versus 44.3 million) when the 11.6 million persons in immigrant households without insurance are counted.

Hispanics have by far the lowest rates of being insured, here are some visuals. 41 percent of adult Hispanics are uninsured, of course many of these are recent immigrants, Hispanics as a whole account for over 12 percent of national population.

I am all for a liberal immigration policy, but I do not feel we are obliged to offer health insurance to all comers. In fact I suspect that national health insurance would, in the long run, lead to fiscal pressures to limit immigration, thus damaging the health of potential immigrants.

Nor do immigrants rush to buy their own health insurance, in many cases I suspect they would rather send the money back home, where health care crises are likely more severe:

Lack of insurance remains a severe problem even after immigrants have been in the country for many years. In 1998, 37 percent of immigrants who entered in the 1980s still had not acquired health insurance, and 27.2 percent of 1970s immigrants were uninsured.

Many other Americans lack health insurance because they are out of work. True, a good health care system should be robust to macroeconomic disturbances, but with employment and productivity rising, these people do not represent much of a current case for reform.

It also turns out that many of the uninsured are uninsured for only part of the year. According to the CBO, those uninsured for the entire year amount to somewhere between 21 and 31 million, knocking a full 12 million off the original total.

Some of the uninsured are more accurately a counting error:

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), [a] verification question lowered the estimate of the number of uninsured living in households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more by 16 percent. The verification question lowered by 4 percent the number of uninsured living in households with incomes under $25,000.

Many of the uninsured are in fact college students, who either rely on their parents, or are covered under their parents’ policies, read here. One estimate suggests that one out of seven college students lacks insurance, but it is hard to believe that most of these people have no other resources supporting them.

Finally, the uninsured often have good access to medical care. Consider this:

15 million of the uninsured have incomes of $50,000 or more. The fastest-growing population of uninsured has incomes exceeding $75,000. About 14 million are eligible for Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan but are not enrolled.

The “entire year uninsured” receive about half as much care, in dollar-valued terms, as the fully insured. As a last resort, you can always show up at an emergency room and simply demand care. In the year 2001, uninsured Americans received at least $35 billion in health care treatments.

The bottom line: When you put all the pieces together, the crisis of the uninsured is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

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