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43.6 million lacked health insurance in U.S. in 2002

The number of Americans without health insurance rose last year for the second consecutive year as more workers lost jobs and many who remained employed lost medical coverage, a new report says.

The ranks of the uninsured rose to 43.6 million, an increase of 2.4 million from 2001, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report scheduled to be released today. That means 15.2 percent of the U.S. population had no health insurance last year, compared with 14.6 percent in 2001.

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In Maryland, the percentage of uninsured people rose to 12.8 percent from 11.3 percent.

The national trend is particularly troubling for workers, who are shouldering more of the cost of health care as employers look for ways to reduce expenses and improve their bottom lines in a slow economy.

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With job cuts affecting nearly all industries last year, it was only natural that the number of uninsured would rise. Without a surge in hiring, health benefits expired for many out-of-work Americans. But even those who kept their jobs lost health insurance at an unprecedented pace. The percentage of people covered by employer-based health insurance dropped to 61.3 percent from 62.6 percent in 2001, the Census Bureau report says.

"This is a reflection of a recession," said Robert Mills, lead author of the report on the uninsured and a survey statistician for the Census Bureau. "We are seeing that the most obvious reason for the drop in the insured rate is the drop in rate of people covered by employment-based plans."

By comparison, census officials said, employers enriched health benefits during the late 1990s when unemployment was low, corporate profits were high and stock prices soared in an unprecedented bull market.

Eighteen- to 24-year-olds were the least likely of any age group to have health insurance in 2002. Nearly 30 percent of this group didn't have coverage.

The rate of Hispanics who were uninsured was higher than that for any other racial or ethnic group at 32.4 percent, or 12.7 million Hispanics, the report says. The rate for Hispanics was largely unchanged from 2001.

Given the increasing plight of the uninsured, key lawmakers in Washington said Congress needs to give the issue the same attention as the proposal to add a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly.

"For the uninsured, health care often is catch as catch can," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees health care issues. "That's no way to live. Congress needs to show the same commitment to addressing this problem as it has to delivering a prescription drug benefit in Medicare."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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