World and Nation

Increase in Government Health Plans Helped Turn Tide in 2007

After climbing steadily for six years, the number of Americans without health insurance dropped by more than a million in 2007, to 45.7 million, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The drop was the result of growth in government-sponsored health insurance programs, officials said, most of them focused on children. At the same time, the number of people covered by private insurance continued to decline.

Experts cautioned that the report, which also included data on income and poverty, did not take into account the economic downturn that began late last year, and therefore it probably presents a rosier picture than the current economic reality.

According to the report, the nation’s median household income rose by 1.3 percent in 2007, to $50,233, the third consecutive annual increase. The nation’s poverty rate remained flat at 12.5 percent, the report said.

“The data in this report refer to last year, when everything was different,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal policy group in Washington. “This year, we’re losing jobs on a monthly basis, inflation is running well over 5 percent, and unemployment was last seen at 5.7 percent and rising.”

Health-care experts and advocates for the poor said the report also presented an outdated picture regarding health insurance. The rate of people without health insurance declined to 15.3 percent in 2007, from 15.8 percent a year earlier.

“In 2007, at least 26 states made efforts to expand coverage, but as the economy has turned downward so have state efforts,” said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Rowland added that insurance premiums had risen faster than wages and inflation, causing more people to seek insurance from public programs.

The census report, she said, highlights the importance of expanding government health-care plans like the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

In December, President Bush signed legislation that extends federal financing for the program through the end of March 2009. That action came after he vetoed two congressional attempts to expand the program.

David Johnson, chief of the Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division at the Census Bureau, said that the number of people covered by private insurance declined in 2007, but that the overall number of people who were uninsured went down because of federal and state programs. “The fall in private insurance was similar to recent years,” Johnson said. “That fall was offset by the rise in government insurance.”

The number of people under 18 without insurance dropped to 11 percent, or 8.1 million, in 2007, from 11.7 percent, or 8.7 million, a year earlier.

Over all, the percentage of people covered by government programs rose to 27.8 percent in 2007 from 27 percent the year before.