Health insurance system in trouble?

A physician assistant of family medicine wears a stethoscope.

SCOTT JAGOW: Once a year, the Census Bureau gives us kind of a checkup. How much money we're making. How many of us aren't making money. How many people lack health insurance. Well, that checkup just came in today. Helen Palmer reports from the Health Desk at WGBH.


HELEN PALMER: The number of Americans without health insurance is on the rise. It peaked at over 16 percent in 1998 before falling. At today's press conference the Census Bureau's David Johnson said it's back up to 15.9%.
DAVID JOHNSON: In 2005, the number of people without health insurance coverage increased from 45.3 million in 2004 to 46.6 million.

Commentators across the political spectrum see these numbers as evidence that America's health insurance system is in trouble. Nina Owcharenko is with the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

NINA OWCHARENKO: Today's health care system — the patchwork system of public- and employer-based coverage — just doesn't work for all Americans.

Diane Rowland of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation agrees. Things are getting worse.

DIANE ROWLAND: We're seeing a continued erosion in coverage from the employer-based health care system and an inability of the public sector programs like Medicaid to make up the difference in the loss of employer-based coverage.

Rowland says that most of the new uninsured are working adults. But 400,000 more children, especially minorities, went without coverage last year. That's partly because pressure on states' budgets made some tighten eligibility for health coverage. But the Heritage Foundation's Nina Owcharenko points out that some things still do work well.

OWCHARENKO: The majority of Americans still get their health insurance through the private markets, and we need to find ways bolster that and to get more people who don't fit into the current system into the private markets to buy their health insurance.

Owcharenko says Congress should introduce tax credits to help people afford coverage. There are other ideas, too. Scrap plans to roll back the estate tax, says consumers group Families USA. That cash could insure every child.

The health insurance industry say regulations and mandates should be rolled back. Then it could offer cheaper policies.

But these ideas don't have bipartisan support. There's no sign of anything that does.

Meantime, there are over 6 million more uninsured Americans than there were in 2000.

JAGOW: Helen Palmer from our Health Desk in Boston. OK Helen that was one report we got from the Census today. There was actually another one came out. What did that one tell us?

PALMER: Well this annual report covers income and poverty as well as health insurance. When it comes to poverty there were the same number of people in poverty in 2005 as in 2004, about 37 million Americans. And incomes interestingly, showed a slight in crease in 2005 from 2004. They actually rose a little over one percent, about $46,000, but when it came to wages, actually median wages actually fell two percent for men and about one percent for women. Women, by the way, still only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

JAGOW: Well how do wages go down and incomes go up?

PALMER: Well interestingly it's the people at the top of the income bracket that really made out well. Their incomes rose by about three percent, whereas the people at the lower end, the actual wage slaves, they saw their incomes fall about half a percent in real terms. So basically all the rise in wages is driven by the people at the top end of the spectrum.

JAGOW: Alright Helen, thanks a lot.

PALMER: Thanks a lot.

JAGOW: Marketplace's Helen Palmer.

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