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Ranks of uninsured Americans swell

43.6 million lack health coverage — 2.4 million over ’02

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WASHINGTON — The ranks of the uninsured swelled by 2.4 million last year as insurance costs kept rising and more Americans lost their jobs and health care coverage.

The number of people without health insurance the entire year rose to 43.6 million, a jump of almost 6 percent from 2001 and the second consecutive annual increase, the Census Bureau said in a report being released Tuesday. The percentage of Americans without health coverage rose from 14.6 to 15.2.

Significant increases in uninsured rates occurred among whites, blacks, people 18-to-64, and middle- and higher-income earners. Rates increased in all regions of the country except the West.

In Utah, the state health department reports the number of uninsured has been actually declining.

The Health Status Survey shows that about 199,000 Utahns, or 8.7 percent, don't have health insurance coverage. About 145,000 of them are adults.

The state has been working to reduce its number of uninsured and has received special permission from the federal government to not provide some required medical services and use the savings to add more people to Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor. Utah has also increased the number of children on the joint state and federal Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP.

Nationally, a survey released this month from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research group, found that private health premiums increased 13.9 percent between 2002 and 2003. A family policy, on average, cost $9,068.

Loss of coverage stemming from layoffs and scaled-back benefits was primarily to blame, Census Bureau analyst Robert Mills said. In 2002, 61.3 percent of U.S. residents were covered under an employment-based policy, down from 62.6 percent in 2001.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson noted that the uninsured rate for children was relatively unchanged at 11.6 percent and that there were expansions in coverage in two programs aimed at covering the poor and children — Medicaid and CHIP.

The White House pointed to other proposals in President Bush's 2004 budget request, such as $89 billion in health care tax credits to help those who do not have employer-based coverage, as ways to get more people covered.

"The president is committed to getting the economy growing faster so the number of unemployed and uninsured Americans will go down," Bush spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.

But John Holahan, a health care policy expert at the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, said increases through Medicaid and CHIP haven't helped lower- and middle-income adults out of jobs but are ineligible for public assistance.

"This is the second punch of the double whammy — you lose your job, then you lose your health insurance," said Rep. Pete Stark of California, senior Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee, blaming the insurance losses on the "Bush jobless recovery."

Contributing: James Thalman, Deseret Morning News.