Health Insurance

Obamacare pushes nation's health uninsured rate to record low 8.6 percent

A person walks into the UniVista Insurance company office where people are signing up for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in Miami, Florida.
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Low enough for you yet?

The rate of Americans who lack health insurance has hit a record low — again — as a result of Obamacare.

In the first quarter of 2016, there were 8.6 percent of Americans — or about 27.3 million people — who were uninsured, the first time in history that the nation's uninsured rate fell below 9 percent.

In 2010, the year that the Affordable Care Act became law, 48.6 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, lacked insurance. Since then, the uninsured rate has been cut almost in half, and the trend has only continued this year.

The National Health Interview Survey released late Tuesday shows that as of the first quarter of 2016, 1.3 million fewer people than in 2015 lacked health insurance.

And there are now 21.3 million fewer uninsured persons than there were in 2010, according to the survey, which is conducted by a division of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the survey also showed a dramatic spike in the number of people who are enrolled in so-called high-deductible health plans, which require them to directly pay a larger share of their medical costs out of pocket, as opposed their plan shouldering that cost.

Since 2010, the percentage of nonelderly people with private health coverage who were enrolled in a high-deductible plan has grown from 25.3 percent, up to 36.7 percent last year.

And in the first three months of this year, 40 percent of such people were enrolled in a high-deductible plan.

Plans sold on Affordable Care Act marketplaces often have higher deductibles than "group coverage" provided through employers. However, the trend toward higher-deductible plans began prior to the ACA, as insurers and employers try to limit premium price increases, and discourage unnecessary use of health services.

The survey noted that Hispanics have seen the biggest decreases in uninsured status under the ACA — from 40.6 percent in 2013, down to 24.5 percent this year — but still have the highest uninsured rate of any ethnic group.

Among non-Hispanic blacks, the uninsured rate was 13 percent. Whites now have an uninsured rate of 8.4 percent. The uninsured rate of Asian adults is now just 6.7 percent.

"Our country's march toward improving access, quality, and affordability in health care goes on, and today's numbers show that the Affordable Care Act is continuing to drive historic progress," said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

Burwell said the law "is part of the fabric of our country."

The ACA contains a number of provisions that are designed to expand health coverage to the uninsured.

They include a requirement that nearly all Americans have some form of health coverage or pay a tax penalty; allowing adults under age 26 to remain on their parents' health plans; and barring insurers from declining coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions.

The ACA also authorized the creation of government-run insurance exchanges to sell individual health plans, which include subsidies for customers with low or moderate incomes. Currently, more than 10 million people are enrolled in exchange-sold plans, and millions more have bought individual plans outside of the exchanges under the ACA.

Another aspect of Obamacare, which has been credited with greatly reducing the uninsured rate, is authorizing the expansion of Medicaid to nearly all poor adults. Thirty-one states have expanded their Medicaid programs, with the federal government picking up most of the costs of providing coverage to the newly eligible.

Next year is considered crucial by Obamacare advocates. A number of insurers intend to exit Obamacare marketplaces, and many insurers remaining on those exchanges plan to hike their premium prices more sharply than in past years.

While federal health regulators have noted that more than 80 percent of Obamacare exchange customers get subsidies that can shield them totally or largely from premium price increases, millions of unsubsidized customers have no such protection.

The price hikes, and other factors, have raised concern that 2017 may be the year when efforts to expand coverage to the uninsured hit a wall.