(Sally C. Pipes) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that 59.1 million Americans went without health insurance for at least part of this year — an all-time high. The CDC estimate comes on the heels of a report from the Census Bureau that arrived at a similar conclusion.
Supporters of ObamaCare have seized on these findings to make their case for the law to an increasingly skeptical American public. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus wrote, “The increase in uninsured Americans last year is clear evidence of how critical it was to take action to protect patients, and that’s exactly what the Affordable Care Act will do.”
Unfortunately, there’s far more to this story than meets the eye. Simply put, the CDC and the Census Bureau have misdiagnosed the extent of the uninsured problem — and the president has prescribed an ineffective, and even harmful, remedy.
For starters, the Census Bureau itself warns that “health insurance coverage is underreported … for a variety of reasons.”
Here’s one: The data gathered by the survey more closely approximate “the number of people who were uninsured at a specific point in time during the year than the number of people uninsured for the entire year,” as the report puts it.
In other words, some folks may be counted as uninsured when they simply experienced a temporary interruption in their coverage, perhaps between jobs.
The Census and CDC figures also fail to account for the millions of uninsured who are eligible for existing government insurance programs but haven’t signed up. According to the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, roughly one in four Americans without coverage qualify for government-provided care.
Many other uninsured Americans voluntarily go without insurance. Some 10.6 million people with household incomes of more than $75,000 lack coverage. Another 9.4 million of the uninsured live in households that make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. Many of these 20 million folks could afford health insurance — but have chosen to spend their money elsewhere.
Finally, 9.9 million noncitizens, both legal and illegal, are uninsured. They comprise about a fifth of those without insurance, and many of them will not be eligible for coverage under ObamaCare anyway. They will, however, still be able to turn up at emergency rooms. Doctors and hospitals will therefore face the burden of even more uncompensated care.
Even if the scope of the uninsured problem is exaggerated, won’t ObamaCare help the country achieve universal coverage — which was one of Obama’s main goals for health reform in the first place?
Sadly, the trillion-dollar answer is no. Despite imposing $500 billion in new taxes, swelling the federal deficit to record levels and forcing costly unfunded mandates on the states, the new law, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will still leave 23 million Americans without coverage by 2019.
That’s because ObamaCare does nothing to address the fundamental problem with health care in the United States — our employer-based health insurance system.
The number of uninsured increased last year primarily because of the lengthy recession. People are losing their insurance because they’re losing their jobs. In fact, a mere one percentage point rise in the unemployment rate causes 2.4 million people to lose their employer-sponsored health care, according to the Urban Institute.
Yet the new law actually strengthens the link between employment and insurance. In fact, by requiring plans to offer expensive benefits that most people don’t need, ObamaCare makes it even more difficult for individuals who can’t get coverage through work to find affordable insurance.
Hence, under ObamaCare, 34 million Americans will become insured — 18 million more will be forced into Medicaid, and 16 million will be eligible for taxpayer-funded subsidies.
It didn’t have to be this way. The president could have empowered Americans to find coverage that met their needs and budget by reforming the tax code so that individuals could buy insurance with pretax dollars, just as employers can. If Americans — rather than their employers — owned their insurance policies, then they could take them from job to job and remain insured if they lost their jobs.
There’s no question we must find ways to make affordable coverage available to the uninsured. Unfortunately, ObamaCare doesn’t help in that effort — and will actually make insurance more expensive.
(Sally C. Pipes is president and CEO of the Pacific Research Institute and author of “The Truth About ObamaCare”)