World and Nation

Number of Americans with health insurance increases

Federal researchers reported on Tuesday that the number of Americans without health insurance had declined substantially in the first quarter of this year, the first federal measure of the number of uninsured Americans since the Affordable Care Act extended coverage to millions of people in January.

The number of uninsured Americans fell by about 8 percent to 41 million people in the first quarter of this year, compared with 2013, a drop that represented about 3.8 million people and that roughly matched what experts were expecting based on polling by private groups, like Gallup. The survey also measured physical health but found little evidence of change.

The findings were part of the National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative examination that is considered a gold standard by researchers. It interviewed about 27,000 people in the first quarter, fewer than Gallup, which interviewed 45,000 people in the second quarter alone. But researchers say it is considered particularly trustworthy because federal interviewers conduct the survey in Americans’ homes. It also sets a federal level that others can use as a benchmark.

Larry Levitt, a director at the Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research organization, said the first-quarter findings “dramatically understate the effect” of the law, as almost half of the people who signed up for insurance during the open enrollment period did so in March and did not get their insurance cards until later. Private surveys have shown that there were 8 million to 10 million fewer uninsured by the second quarter, he said.

There was a sharper drop in the share of uninsured in states that expanded Medicaid than in those that did not, reflecting the broad uptake of the government insurance program since the law took effect.

Analysts have scrambled in recent months to measure the effects of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance reform, by drawing on data trickling in from the early months of this year from health insurance plans, hospital associations and other sources. But experts caution that those ups and downs will not say much about the change, and that a meaningful analysis will only be possible once data from later months accumulate.

“It is too early,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at MIT whose work was used in shaping the law.