Harvard study: 45,000 uninsured die every year

By Paul Kleyman, New America Media
Having no health insurance means an early death to almost 45,000 people in the United States annually - almost two-and-a-half times the number previously estimated -- according to a study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

The research team used the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to update previous calculations based on 20-year-old data. They tracked 9,004 uninsured individuals ages 17-64.

The study included special "oversamples" of African Americans and Mexicans -- who were found to die at about the same rate as their white counterparts.

"Although blacks and Hispanics are more likely to end up uninsured, racial differences in the percentages of deaths was not statistically significant," lead author Dr. Andrew Wilper said in an interview.

In essence, he said, once people are uninsured "they are in the same boat" -- a boat in which 3 percent will succumb each year from lack of care.

Researchers at Harvard University found that deaths by lack of health insurance are "more than those caused by kidney disease" (nearly 43,000 a year). The research team also included what they called a more "conservative" estimate of about 35,000 deaths annually, still double past findings.

Wilper, who recently joined the medical staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, said his research group analyzed data from NCHS's Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This federal survey included detailed interviews and physical examinations of participating Americans.

The study's authors cite a long list of previous research showing why lack of insurance elevates health risks for people. Past studies have documented such effects of having no insurance as rising hypertension, poor management of chronic illness, and reduced likelihood of receiving preventative and primary care, leading often to increased visits to emergency rooms.

Other studies have demonstrated that uninsured people get healthier when they turn 65 and go on Medicare. That's because when they join the government system, these seniors receive expensive health treatments for long-neglected medical conditions.

Wilper and his colleagues conclude current public health alternatives for the uninsured, such as going to community health centers, "do not provide the protection of private health insurance."

They add, "Despite widespread acknowledgment that enacting universal coverage would be life saving, doing so remains politically thorny."

The study concludes that health professions should "advocate for universal coverage." Wilper said the reports authors expect to be criticized for their activist stand, but argued their political opinion is based on solid scientific research, including major reports by the Institute of Medicine.

"We had no control over the timing of publication," Wilper said. "We began this process two years go."

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