Health insurance is a poor measure of health care 

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released its annual report on health insurance coverage in the United States. The news media widely misconstrued the data, and presented the problems facing the nation’s health care system through a distorted lens.

Many major news outlets made a basic error when reporting on the census study. The Los Angeles Times, among them, wrote “the number of Americans with no health insurance rose in 2010 to 49.9 million from 49 million the year before.” But the figure cited by the Times included 9.7 million people who were not American citizens.

In addition to noncitizens, the cumulative number included people who were eligible for pre-Obamacare government health insurance programs, but simply never bothered to do the paperwork. The Census Bureau itself cautioned that, “Research shows health insurance coverage is under-reported” by the survey, which “more closely approximates the number of people who were uninsured at a specific point in time during the year than the number of people uninsured for the entire year.”

Far fewer Americans were chronically uninsured than the headline number suggested. While the exact number who fit into this narrower category is hard to pin down, a BlueCross BlueShield study determined that it was 8.2 million in 2003 (that year, the headline census figure was 41.9 million). Of course, proponents of bigger government like citing the highest uninsured number possible to push the case that massive intervention is needed to get people covered.

But the larger problem with the focus on health insurance is the assumption that coverage guarantees actual access to health care. It doesn’t. As the government adds more and more people to government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, it becomes harder and harder for those enrolled in the programs to get actual care. This problem has been made worse by the Democrats’ insistence on “saving money” in Medicare by cutting doctor reimbursement rates. According to a recent Government Accountability Office study, while 79 percent of health care providers are currently taking privately insured kids, only 47 percent are taking new child Medicaid enrollees.

The broader issue facing the nation is not the lack of health insurance, but rising health care costs. And that’s something that needs to be addressed through market-based reforms, not the massive government expansion envisioned by Obamacare.

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