WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 26,000 working-age adults die prematurely in the United States each year because they lack health insurance, according to a study published ahead of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.
The study, released on Wednesday by the consumer advocacy group Families USA, estimates that a record high of 26,100 people aged 25 to 64 died for lack of health coverage in 2010, up from 20,350 in 2005 and 18,000 in 2000.
That makes for a rate of about 72 deaths per day, or three per hour.
The nonprofit group based its findings on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a 2002 Institute of Medicine study that showed the uninsured face a 25 percent higher risk of death than those with coverage.
The findings are in line with a study by the Urban Institute think tank that estimated 22,000 deaths nationwide in 2006.
Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said the group released the study to illustrate the potential human toll behind a high court ruling that could overturn the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by the end of next week.
"Lives are truly on the line," said Pollack, who supports the reform law. "If the Affordable Care Act moves forward and we expand coverage for tens of millions of people, the number of avoidable deaths due to being uninsured will decrease significantly."
The reform law would extend coverage to more than 30 million Americans who are uninsured. But 26 U.S. states have asked the Supreme Court to overturn the legislation on grounds that it exceeds the government's constitutional authority.
The $2.6 trillion U.S. healthcare system, which represents nearly 18 percent of the economy, is accessible to most working-age Americans only through private health insurance. But insurance costs - premiums, deductibles, copays and co-insurance - are unaffordable for many and increasing.
U.S. Census data show that 50 million Americans lack coverage, and experts say those in such straits forego medical care, doctor visits and preventive tests including cancer and blood pressure screenings.
"The uninsured get healthcare about half as often as insured Americans, on average," said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, director of the think tank RAND Health and co-chairman of the committee that produced the 2002 IOM study.
"There is an overwhelming body of evidence that they get less preventive care, less chronic disease care and poorer quality hospital in-patient care," he said.
Pollack and other healthcare advocates say the number of uninsured will continue to rise without reform as healthcare costs accelerate, employers scale back on benefits for their workers, and the social safety net frays under fiscal pressures.
The Families USA study includes a state-by-state breakdown on uninsured deaths. The list excludes Massachusetts, which adopted reforms similar to the Affordable Care Act in 2006. The group said it was concerned that statistics on uninsured people for the state might not accurately reflect the growing rate of coverage.
IOM's 2002 report, "Care Without Coverage: Too Little, Too Late," based its finding of a 25 percent higher mortality risk for the uninsured based on thousands of scientific studies analyzed as part of a multi-year effort that produced six reports in all.
"The figure was as rigorous as could be done with the huge amount evidence we had at the time," Kellermann said. (Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Richard Chang)