Health insurance woes hit workers

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar for the AP

Premiums rising 6 to 8 times faster than wages have

American workers – whose taxes pay for massive government health programs – are getting squeezed like no other group by private health insurance premiums that are rising much faster than their wages.

While just about all retirees are covered, and nearly 90 percent of children have health insurance, workers now are at significantly higher risk of being uninsured than in the 1990s, the last time lawmakers attempted a healthcare overhaul, according to a study to be released today.

The study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that nearly 1 in 5 workers is uninsured, a statistically significant increase from fewer than 1 in 7 during the mid-1990s.

The problem is cost. Total premiums for employer plans have risen six to eight times faster than wages, depending on whether individual or family coverage is chose, the study found.

“The thing I think is interesting is how many workers are newly uninsured,” said Lynn Blewett, director of the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota, which conducted the research.

“In the last couple of years we’ve seen a deterioration of private health insurance.”

About 20.7 million workers were uninsured in the mid-1990s.

A decade later, it was 26.9 million, an increase of about 6 million, the study found.

In the 1990s, there were eight states with 20 percent or more of the working age population uninsured.

Now there are 14: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Texas.

Yet workers continue to pay the bill for covering others. Their payroll taxes help support Medicare, which covers the elderly.

Income taxes and other federal and state levies pay for covering the poor and the children of low-income working parents. But government provides little direct assistance to help cover workers themselves.

“There really aren’t safety-net programs for adults,” Blewett said.

The study comes as the Obama administration is scrambling to maintain support for a healthcare overhaul this year in the face of record federal deficits. A program like President Obama’s, which would commit the nation to coverage for all, is estimated to cost about $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Yet the US healthcare system, already the world’s costliest, is also considered one of the most wasteful.

“I don’t think we can delay action beyond this year,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the study and provides extensive financing for healthcare research. “It’s clear that we are at the brink.”

For the Ramer family of Denver, Iowa, it’s already too late. Husband Jim, a truck driver for a road-building company, died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 59. He was uninsured and trying to cope with diabetes, a chronic disease that requires prescription drugs and follow-up medical care to keep under control.

His wife, Cindy, 58, works full time caring for mentally disabled people as a certified nursing assistant.

But the nursing home that employs her canceled its medical coverage several years ago because it had become too expensive.

Ramer is now uninsured and hasn’t had a regular checkup in about three years. Instead, she goes to health fairs for bone-density measurements and other screening tests.

“I don’t think it’s fair that I’m caring for people and helping them with their healthcare, and I don’t have adequate, affordable healthcare of my own,” said Ramer. “I’m not asking for a handout. I’m just asking for something I can afford, and won’t have all these restrictions that they’ll cover this and won’t cover that.”

Ramer says she can afford to pay about $100 to $150 a month.

If anything, the situation for workers appears to be worse than is reflected in the report. It analyzed census data through 2007, the latest year available. But that was before the economy tumbled into recession.


  1. Dr. Christine Adams on March 27, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    When are reporters going to report on solutions? We read, see and hear story after story about our health care crisis – but hardly any coverage of solutions. All of us know there is a health care crisis. We don’t really need more stories about the crisis, we need many more stories about solutions. Where is the side by side comparison of HR 676 to the Baucus proposal? Where are the articles about the CBO scoring of HR 676 compared with the Baucus proposal? Where are the articles giving the public detailed, accurate information about the proposals, what the costs are, what the trade-offs are, what the health care system is will look like under different reform proposals. There’s certainly no shortage of data. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans, 59% of physicians and even two Nobel prize winners in economics, Drs. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman all publicly support single payer national health care, we rarely come across an article, a radio piece, a TV spot that discusses single payer accurately, much at all – even NPR and the Newshour have ignored single payer. I have hopes that T.S. Reid’s “Sick Around America” on Frontline this Tuesday will have some good discussion of single payer in his special report. Mainstream media has been sadly negligent on this issue. Time for those of us who support single payer to bombard media with complaints about their lack of coverage on solutions, especially the single payer solution.

  2. TMP on April 4, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I’ve never understood how as a nation we thought covering seniors and chldren, while leaving adults out made any sense. Who cares for Grandma when her daughter or son gets ill. Who will tend children when Mom or Dad is confined to bed or dies because our insane, for profit, healthcare system.

    I’d like to see a study telling how many kids wind up in temporary or permanent foster care because a parents are too ill to care for them.

    I understand the mentality of providing for the weakest among us, but in doing so we have put a back breaking, literally sickening burden on adults who are left out.