Number of Uninsured Americans up for the First Time in 10 Years

For the first time in a decade, the number of Americans without health insurance has risen, up by about 2 million people in 2018.

Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News

For the first time in a decade, the number of Americans without health insurance has risen — by about 2 million people in 2018 — according to the annual U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday.

The Census found that 8.5% of the U.S. population went without medical insurance for all of 2018, up from 7.9% in 2017. By contrast, in 2013, before the Affordable Care Act took full effect, 13.3% were uninsured. It was the first year-to-year increase since 2008-09, Census officials said.

Census officials said most of drop in health coverage was related to a 0.7% decline in Medicaid participants. The number of people with private insurance remained steady and there was a 0.4% increase in those on Medicare.

Many of those losing coverage were non-citizens, a possible fallout from the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies and rhetoric. About 574,000 non-citizens lost coverage in 2018, a drop of about 2.3%, the report found.

“Uninsured non-citizens account for almost a third of the increase in uninsured, which may reflect the administration’s more aggressive stance on immigration,” said Joseph Antos, a health economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

The increase in the number of uninsured people in 2018 was remarkable because uninsured rates typically fall or hold steady when unemployment rates drop. The U.S. unemployment rate fell slightly from about 4.3% in 2017 to 4% in 2018.

The uninsured rate continued to vary by poverty status and whether a state expanded its Medicaid program under Obamacare. Texas (17.7%), Oklahoma (14.2%), Georgia (13.7%) and Florida (13%) had the highest uninsured rates in 2018, according to the report. None of those states have expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

The percentage of uninsured children under the age of 19 increased by 0.6 percentage points from 2017 to 2018, to 5.5%.

“The Census data are clear — the uninsured rate for kids is up sharply and it’s due to a loss of public coverage — mostly Medicaid,” Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said in a statement.

“These children are not getting private coverage as the Trump Administration has suggested but rather becoming uninsured,” she said. “This serious erosion of children’s health coverage is due in large part to the Trump Administration’s actions that have made health care harder to access and have deterred families from enrolling their children.”

The share of Americans without medical insurance fell steadily since 2014 but then leveled off in 2017, the year Donald Trump became president.

Health care advocates have complained that efforts by the Trump administration and Congress are jeopardizing insurance enrollment. They point to cuts in outreach programs that aim to tell consumers about their health care options under Obamacare and the elimination of the ACA’s tax penalty for people who don’t have health coverage.

Alker complained that the administration’s policies are causing the loss of children’s coverage. “In a period of continued economic and job growth, we shouldn’t be going backwards on health coverage,” said Judy Solomon, a senior fellow for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “This backsliding almost certainly reflects, at least in part, Trump administration policies to weaken public health coverage.”

She attributed the drop to the Trump administration making it harder for families to enroll for coverage in Medicaid by curtailing outreach efforts, allowing states to ask for more paperwork and proposing a so-called public charge rule that would make it harder for legal immigrants to get permanent resident status if they have received certain kinds of public assistance — including Medicaid.

Tom Miller, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the drop in Medicaid coverage “is a positive.”

“When the economy grows Medicaid eventually drops,” he said.

One reason for the drop in health coverage is that middle-income families can’t afford the rising cost of insurance in the individual market, particularly if they don’t qualify for government subsidies, he added.

“On balance, this is some short-term noise,” he said of the uptick in the uninsured rate. “I would put more stake in it if happens for several years.”

Chris Pope, a senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute, also said he considered the change “fairly small” and likely due to increasing wages “pushing people above the income eligibility cutoff in Medicaid expansion states.”

But he suggested that next year would be a better indicator of how changes in the ACA are playing out.

“I expect that the mandate repeal will make next year’s increase in the uninsured more significant,” he said.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.

1 in 6 Insured Americans Get a Surprise Bill for Hospital Care

Patients often aren’t aware they are being treated by an out-of-network doctor while in a hospital, and the cost of such can be quite unexpected.

Rachel Bluth, Kaiser Health News

About 1 in 6 Americans were surprised by a medical bill after treatment in a hospital in 2017 despite having insurance, according to a study published Thursday.

On average, 16% of inpatient stays and 18% of emergency visits left a patient with at least one out-of-network charge. Most of those came from doctors offering treatment at the hospital, even when the patients chose an in-network hospital, according to researchers from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Its study was based on large employer insurance claims. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The research also found that when a patient is admitted to the hospital from the emergency room, there’s a higher likelihood of an out-of-network charge. As many as 26% of admissions from the emergency room resulted in a surprise medical bill.

“Millions of emergency visits and hospital stays left people with large employer coverage at risk of a surprise bill in 2017,” the authors wrote.

The researchers got their data by analyzing large-employer claims from IBM’s MarketScan Research Databases, which include claims for almost 19 million individuals.

Surprise medical bills are top of mind for American patients, with 38% reporting they were “very worried” about unexpected medical bills.

Surprise bills don’t just come from the emergency room. Often, patients will pick an in-network facility and see a provider who works there but isn’t employed by the hospital. These doctors, from outside staffing firms, can charge out-of-network prices.

“It’s kind of a built-in problem,” said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation and an author of the study. She said most private health insurance plans are built on networks, where patients get the highest value for choosing a doctor in the network. But patients often don’t know whether they are being treated by an out-of-network doctor while in a hospital.

“By definition, there are these circumstances where they cannot choose their provider, whether it’s an emergency or it’s [a doctor] who gets brought in and they don’t even meet them face-to-face.”

The issue is ripe for a federal solution. Some states have surprise-bill protections in place, but those laws don’t apply to most large-employer plans because the federal government regulates them.

“New York and California have very high rates of surprise bills even though they have some of the strongest state statutes,” Pollitz said. “These data show why federal legislation would matter.”

Consumers in Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey and Kansas were the most likely to see a surprise bill, while people in Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Maine and Mississippi saw fewer, according to the study.

Legislative solutions are being discussed in the White House and Congress. The leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee introduced a package Wednesday that included a provision to address it. The legislation from HELP sets a benchmark for what out-of-network physicians will be paid, which would be an amount comparable to what the plan is paying other doctors for that service.

That bill is set for a committee markup next week.

Other remedies are also being offered by different groups of lawmakers.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.