Percentage of Americans lacking insurance drops in January

A woman in Washington, D.C., visits the insurance marketplace website.
(Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images)

The percentage of Americans who say they lack health insurance ticked down slightly in January, according to new data that appear to reflect the first effects of President Obama’s health law.

Gallup, which has regularly tracked Americans’ insurance status, reported Thursday that the share without any coverage had declined by about a percentage point in the first three weeks of January, to 16.1% of the adult population. That would represent slightly more than 2 million people.

The data provide the first indication of whether Obamacare is succeeding at one of its main goals — reducing the number of Americans who lack insurance. It suggests the impact has been positive, but small so far, much as the law’s authors had expected.

The Obama administration and states have reported that as of early January, about 2.2 million people had signed up for coverage using the new marketplaces, known as exchanges, that the Affordable Care Act created. In addition to people who bought coverage on the new exchanges, several million more — the exact number remains uncertain — have qualified for Medicaid in states that have chosen to go along with the law’s expansion of that program.


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But not all of those people are newly insured; a significant percentage on the exchanges — and probably some of the new Medicaid patients, as well — previously had some coverage. That would be consistent with one of the law’s other goals, which was to upgrade the quality of insurance available to people who do not get coverage from their workplaces. A recent survey by McKinsey & Co. of 389 consumers who bought coverage on exchanges found that only 11% were previously uninsured.

The increase in insurance coverage reported by Gallup underscores the slow nature of Obamacare’s rollout. Initial projections by the Congressional Budget Office forecast that some 7 million people would sign up by the time the law’s open enrollment period ends on March 31. Enrollment nationally is behind that forecast, in part because of the breakdown of the enrollment website in October and November. Even if the law reaches the 7-million mark this year, several more years will be needed to make a big dent in the uninsured population. About 45 million people in the U.S. lack insurance, including roughly 29 million potentially eligible for coverage under the exchanges.

Gallup’s data is based on a large-scale survey — 9,145 adults polled between Jan. 2 and 19 as part of the company’s regular Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index. But the numbers cannot conclusively determine whether the new law is responsible for the trend toward greater coverage. The percentage without insurance has fluctuated some from month to month, and an improving economy has probably led to some additional people getting insurance at work.


But the survey found the biggest improvement among those who are unemployed, indicating that employer coverage is not the only factor at play. Among people looking for work, the share without insurance dropped almost seven percentage points. Still, one-third of unemployed people reported they were without health coverage in January.

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