LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nearly one in four Californians under age 65 lacked health insurance during all or part of last year, well above the latest national average, in a trend fueled by shrinking coverage due to mounting job layoffs, a new study on Tuesday found.
The number left uninsured for at least part of the year in the most populous U.S. state climbed from 6.4 million in 2007 to 8.2 million last year, a 25 percent jump that shocked University of California at Los Angeles researchers who have tracked the figures for a decade.
“We expected to see some increase, certainly, but one of this magnitude was quite surprising,” Shana Alex Lavarreda, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters.
The bulk of the increase, the study said, stemmed from soaring job losses during the recession and a corresponding drop in employer-provided coverage, which accounts for about half the health insurance for Californians under 65.
Nearly all U.S. senior citizens are covered under the federal Medicare program.
The UCLA researchers said their findings underscore the need for a U.S. healthcare system overhaul that provides a public insurance option for younger adults.
“What we can safely say is that in 2009, a system that was already straining completely broke,” Lavarreda said.
Not including the elderly, the proportion of Californians without health coverage during all or part of the year rose from 19.5 percent in 2007 to 24.3 percent in 2009. Among working-age adults, those between 18 and 65, the rate was higher still, with nearly one in three uninsured.
By comparison, 17 percent of non-elderly Americans overall -- or about 45 million people -- were uninsured in 2008, the last year for which national figures were available. And Lavarreda said California undoubtedly still leads the nation with the highest number of uninsured in any single state.
The proportion of Californians covered by state healthcare programs for the needy grew from 15.3 percent to 16.5 percent during the past two years, an increase more than offset by the steep decline in employer-based insurance.
The federal government softened the blow by offering subsidies to laid-off workers who wished to continue their old employer-based coverage by picking up the premiums themselves.
This more than doubled the rate of coverage under so-called COBRA plans. But 62 percent of those who lost their job-based health benefits were forced to seek coverage from other sources or became uninsured, the study said.
The analysis was based on enrollment data from health insurance companies and state programs, adjusting for population growth and other changes since 2007.
Conducted by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, the study was funded by two charitable organizations devoted to improved access to healthcare -- the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Walsh