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Ranks of uninsured down; insurance rates inch up 4 percent

A U.S. Census report released this week showed that the ranks of uninsured shrank for the first time since 2007 dropping to 15.7 percent of the population compared with 16.3 percent in 2010 and a separate report showed average insurance rates increased only 4 percent in 2012.

The number of uninsured people decreased to 48.6 million, down from 50 million in 2010. One segment of the population that continued to see strong gains was young adults age 19-25 with more than half a million people in this group gaining insurance over the course of the year. Another group showing strong gains with more than 400,000 gaining coverage in 2011 is adults aged 35 to 44 years.

One surprise in the report was the finding that for the first time in more than a decade the number of people in this country having private insurance didn't decline, but held steady at 63.9 percent. The percentage of insured people who receive insurance through their employer also stayed steady, remaining at 55.1 percent, the same rate as 2010.

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People who receive their health insurance through public programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP) continued to increase, as could be expected through the ongoing slow recovery form the recession of 2008-2009, ticking up one percentage point to 32.2 percent of the population in 2011.

A blog post by Sara R. Collins, Karen Davis and Tracy Garber of the Commonwealth Fund hailed the report as good news, noting that "the gain in coverage made by young adults over the past two years is a preview of the sweeping changes we will see after the state insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion go into effect just 15 months from now. Starting in 2014, when the (health reform) law is fully implemented, Americans will have new affordable and comprehensive health insurance options, which will significantly reduce the number of people in each state who lack health insurance. It is essential that federal and state policymakers continue their work implementing the law."

Also released this week was report based on the annual review of health insurance rates conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET). The report showed that the average health insurance premiums for employer sponsored family coverage only increased by 4 percent in 2012.

The premium increases are moderate when compared to some recent years, which saw average premium increases in the double-digit rate, but because of the lagging economy still saw families paying a greater share of their income to get health insurance coverage. By comparison, the insurance increases still outpaced overall wage growth (1.7 percent) and the rate of inflation (2.3 percent).

"In terms of employee insurance costs, this year's 4 percent increase qualifies as a good year, but it still takes a growing bite out of middle-class workers' wages, which have been flat or falling in real terms," said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman, in a press release announcing the publication of the report "2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey."

But this low rate of increase may not carry over into the next year. As part of the survey, researchers asked employers in August if they had received information about rate changes for the coming year for their current plans with the largest enrollment. Of those companies responding, the average projected increase for 2013 was 7 percent.

Other findings of the report detailed cost-sharing for office visits, emergency care and prescription medications. The average co-payments for in-network physician office visits are $23 for primary care and $33 for specialty care. For emergency room visits, average co-pays are $118. For drug plans with three or more tiers, average co-pays are $10 for generic drugs, $29 for preferred brand-name drugs, $51 for non-preferred brand-name drugs and $79 for specialty drugs.

The report also found that health insurance benefits for domestic partners continue to rise at a significant rate. In 2012, 31 percent of employers offered health benefits to same-sex domestic partners, up from 21 percent last year. That is expected to jump to 37 percent of employers in 2013.