Lack of health insurance kills 45,000 Americans annually: Report

Here's a statistic bound to stiffen the resolve of health care reformers: The number of yearly U.S. deaths linked to lack of health insurance is now thought to be nearly 45,000 -- about 2.5 times more than previous estimates seven years ago. That means one person dies every 12 minutes. Why the jump? The study in the American Journal of Public Health points to an increase in the number of uninsured -- at least 46 million today -- and a fraying medical safety net.

The Harvard University-based researchers say uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts. In 1993, that number was just 25 percent. "The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors and baseline health," says lead author Andrew Wilper, who worked at Harvard Medical School when the study was done. "We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease -- but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications."
With health insurance premiums rising 131 percent since 1999, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, it's no wonder more and more Americans are dropping off the insurance rolls. The U.S. House and Senate are both tinkering on their own versions of a health care reform bill, but both have the same goal -- covering all Americans -- that has been Barack Obama's mantra even before becoming president. Nevertheless, the details of how the $774-billion-plus price tag will be paid for, as well as whether there will be a government-run plan -- have kept the reform process moving in slo-mo.

The health-insurance study analyzes data from national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys. It looks at death rates after taking education, income, smoking, drinking, obesity and other factors into account. Respondents answered detailed questions about their socioeconomic status and health and were later examined by physicians. The CDC tracked study participants to see who died by 2000.

The findings are grim: the study estimates that lack of health insurance essentially kills 44,789 Americans annually. Previously, the figure had been closer to 18,000, according to the government-affiliated Institute of Medicine.

Death rates stemming from a lack of insurance are higher for males (37 percent increase), current or former smokers (102 percent and 42 percent increases), people who said that their health was fair or poor (126 percent increase) and those that examining physicians said were in fair or poor health (222 percent increase), the study finds. Deaths associated with lack of health insurance now exceed those caused by many common killers such as kidney disease, the study says.

"The Institute of Medicine, using older studies, estimated that one American dies every 30 minutes from lack of health insurance," says study co-author David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard. "Even this grim figure is an underestimate -- now one dies every 12 minutes."
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