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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Uninsured numbers rising

Colleen Haller

Staff Writer

The last few years have been difficult for families across America. Many have lost their jobs, their homes, and their health insurance. According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 59 million Americans interviewed between January and March 2010 went without health coverage at some point in the previous year. This staggering figure is made up of people of all ages, the healthy and the sick, and people with both low and middle incomes.

Luckily, Congress passed a reauthorization and expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in early 2009, so there is a safety net in place for many—though not all—uninsured children. However, more than one in four non-elderly adults (26.2 percent) interviewed in the first quarter of 2010 went without health insurance in the year prior to the survey. How did this happen?

The economic recession has hit families hard. As people lose their jobs, they often lose their health coverage. And while some of the lowest-income people qualify for coverage under Medicaid, many do not. In most states, a single adult (without children) is not eligible for Medicaid. Similarly, for adults with children, income restrictions can disqualify you even if you are very low income (for example, in Louisiana, a family of three must have an annual income of less than about $4,500 to be eligible). Without Medicaid coverage, many are left to buy insurance in the individual market, which is often too expensive for working families.

These are very real issues facing millions of Americans right now, illustrating precisely why President Obama and Congress worked so hard to pass the Affordable Care Act. As the new law is being implemented, the 59 million will have the help they need to get coverage. Under the new law, Medicaid will be expanded to all people (including single adults) making less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level (about $24,000 for a family of three). For those with income above the 133 percent threshold but below four times the poverty level, the new law provides tax cuts to offset much of the cost of coverage purchased in new insurance exchanges. Low- and middle-income people will also be eligible for help with their out-of-pocket costs through the exchanges. In addition, the new law allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until they are 26, helping young adults make the transition to a career without becoming uninsured. And these are just some of the ways the new law expands coverage. The law also makes coverage more affordable and more stable across the board with insurance reforms to protect you when you get sick and protect you from runaway costs.

Yes, many of these large improvements are being phased in over time. That is a reality given the complexity of implementing these reforms. However, many reforms are already in effect: high-risk pools to help people with pre-existing conditions until the exchanges are up and running, a prohibition on insurers denying coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions, a requirement that kids be allowed to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26, just to name a few. And more continue to go into effect. As opponents of reform shout to “repeal the bill,” what they will they tell the 59 million people without insurance? Or the 12-year old with a pre-existing condition? Or the small business owner who can get a tax cut to help buy coverage for his or her employees? It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric back and forth, but this law is about more than rhetoric. It’s about providing stability to people at a time when outside factors like the economy have left them unsure of what’s next. While the CDC’s report is sobering, it is also a reminder of why the Affordable Care Act is so important.