KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Counting Of Uninsured Americans A Difficult Task

Estimates of the total number of uninsured Americans may be based on "faulty assumptions" that are "inflating the projections," The Wall Street Journal says in its "Numbers Guy" blog. The Census Bureau estimates that the number of uninsured amounts to 45.7 million people," but may be "overcounting by millions." One problem is that "the 45.7 million figure includes undocumented immigrants, even though they aren't likely to be covered under new laws." Nonetheless, Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike use the "flawed numbers liberally," which is a "reprise of what happened 15 years ago, when the Clinton health plan foundered under differing cost estimates wielded by opponents."

"'There is a range of uncertainty in health legislation that probably exceeds that of most other issues before Congress,' says Robert D. Reischauer, who headed the Congressional Budget Office when it was analyzing the Clinton health plan." Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates that undocumented immigrants represent about 13% of the uninsured, "or nearly six million people of that 45 million number." They are difficult to count because "few raise their hands to be counted." In addition, other people are "eligible for health insurance but don't know it and many can afford it but don't want it. About 43% of uninsured nonelderly adults have incomes greater than 2.5 times the poverty level, according to a report released Tuesday by the business-backed Employment Policies Institute. Another problem is the discrepancy between Census and state surveys: "while Census tends to shoot too high, state surveys can undershoot." The Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cost of Sen. Edward Kennedy's bill is also potentially flawed, the Journal reports, because "the CBO was evaluating just one piece of a larger proposal" (Bialik, 6/24). 

NPR examined a different key health care number. Untaxed employer-provided health benefits amount to "about $280 billion a year in taxes that the government doesn't collect. So if you were to start taxing even a small portion of it that's a lot of money" (Rovner, 6/23).

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