Nearly 51 million Americans lacked health insurance last year, a jump of more than 4 million individuals from 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday.
The findings mark the first decrease in the number of insured Americans since the Census Bureau began keeping those figures in 1987. The 50.7 million people without coverage represent 16.7 percent of the nation's population — up from 15.4 percent in 2008.
The trend — driven largely by a steep drop in employer-sponsored coverage — is an indication that the nation's safety-net programs haven't kept pace as high unemployment has eroded Americans' access to health coverage — at least among adults.
Supporters of the new healthcare law were quick to latch onto the numbers as evidence that reform was long overdue. Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the findings "underscore the relevance" of the new law, "which substantially expands coverage for people who cannot obtain insurance through an employer."
"Had health reform been in place in 2009," Greenstein said in a statement, "the number of people without health insurance would have risen far less."
But the news isn't all bad. Despite a rise in poverty numbers among America's kids — up 1.8 million from 2008 to 2009 — the number of uninsured children remained steady. Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children's welfare group, said the reason is no mystery.
"This is entirely due to the overwhelming success of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)," Lesley said in a statement, "and highlights once again that targeted federal investments in the healthcare safety net make a huge difference in the lives of children."
Among the other key findings:
• The real number of folks with insurance coverage dropped from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million last year.
• Private health insurance coverage plunged from 201 million to 194.5 million between 2008 and 2009, while government-sponsored programs saw their enrollment increase, from 87.4 million to 93.2 million.
• Employer-based coverage fell from 176.3 million in 2008 to 169.7 million last year.
• Medicaid enrollment jumped from 42.6 million to 47.8 million.
• Roughly 9.9 million of the uninsured in 2009 were not citizens, up from 9.5 million in 2008. The Census Bureau does not distinguish between those in the country legally and illegally.