Posted on September 10, 2009

Uninsured figures show mandate-based health reforms don't work


New uninsured figures show Massachusetts, touted as model for national reform, is failing to cover the uninsured

Sept. 10, 2009


Quentin Young, M.D., (312) 782-6006
David Himmelstein, M.D.
Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H.
Don McCanne, M.D.
Mark Almberg, PNHP, (312) 782-6006,

Official estimates released this morning by the Census Bureau showing a marginal increase in the number of Americans without health insurance in 2008 - now estimated at 46.3 million, up from 45.7 million in 2007 - masks the true dimensions of the problem, a national doctors’ group said.

Significantly, in Massachusetts, where an individual-mandate health reform law, much like what President Obama is proposing on a national scale, was passed in 2006, at least 352,000 people, or 5.5 percent of the population, remained uninsured in 2008. That number was actually (but non-significantly) higher than the number of uninsured in 2007, before strict enforcement of the individual and employer mandates went into effect.

“The legislation championed by the president and the congressional leadership is a virtual clone of the Massachusetts plan,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). “Today’s numbers show that plans that require people to buy private insurance don’t work. Obama’s plan to replicate Massachusetts’ reform nationally risks failure on a massive scale.”

Woolhandler said last year’s job losses in the recession, and the corresponding loss of health coverage by many workers and their families, are inadequately reflected in the new data. An estimated 2.6 million people lost their jobs in 2008, most of them toward the end of the year. Those who lost insurance at the end of the year would probably be counted as insured in the Census data, she said.

Census officials cited a drop of 1.1 million in the number of persons who were covered by employer-based insurance, continuing an 8-year trend. Whereas 64 percent of Americans had employer-based coverage in 1999, only 58.5 percent had such coverage in 2008.

Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of PNHP, said had it not been for a leap of approximately 4.4 million people newly covered by government programs like Medicaid and Medicare, the overall uninsured rate would have set a new record.

Young said the “tragic and painful persistence” of tens of millions of uninsured persons in the country is “completely unacceptable” and underscores the urgency of enacting a Medicare-for-all program.

“The only way to solve this problem is to insure everyone,” he said. “And the only way to insure everyone is to enact single-payer national health insurance, an improved Medicare for all. Even President Obama has acknowledged this fact.”Young noted that Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., is introducing an amendment to the House leadership’s health reform bill, H.R. 3200, which would essentially delete its present language and substitute the language of Rep. John Conyers’ single-payer bill, H.R. 676. “It’s not too late for Congress to do the right thing,” Young said.

Dr. Don McCanne, senior policy fellow at PNHP, noted that the Census Bureau was once again silent on the pervasive problem of “underinsurance.” People are usually defined as underinsured if they spend 10 percent or more of their income (or 5 percent if they are low-income) on out-of-pocket medical expenses in the course of a year.

“Not having health insurance, or having poor quality insurance that doesn’t protect you from financial hardship in the face of medical need, is a source of mounting stress, anguish and poor medical outcomes for people across our country,” McCanne said. He noted that a recent study showed 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are now linked to medical bills or illness and three-quarters of those who went bankrupt had insurance when they got sick.


State-by-state data on the uninsured from 2005-2009 can be found here:

Physicians for a National Health Program (, a membership organization of over 17,000 physicians, supports a single-payer national health insurance program. To contact a physician-spokesperson in your area, visit or call (312) 782-6006.