Going without health insurance can delay when people obtain primary and preventative care, potentially resulting in poorer health. Even more gravely, a lack of private health insurance brings an increased risk of death; uninsurance is to blame for some 44,789 adult deaths across the U.S. every year, according to a new study published online today in the American Journal of Public Health.
The findings show that uninsured Americans—between the ages of 17 and 64—have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those who have private insurance. (Those enrolled in government insurance programs, such as Medicaid and Department of Veterans Affairs insurance, were excluded from the study.) About 46.3 million Americans didn't have health insurance as of 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the number is estimated to be higher now since the recession has forced many off of employer health plans.
Previous research by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) employing older data had put the risk of death due to uninsurance closer to 25 percent.
The authors analyzed information from surveys and health examinations of more than 9,000 people that was collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1986 and 2000 and checked against death records. Even after controlling for age, gender, race, income, education, employment, smoking, alcohol use, assessed health and BMI, the researchers found "lack of health insurance significantly increased the risk of mortality," they wrote in the paper.
"We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease—but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications," Andrew Wilper, of the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle, and lead study author, said in a prepared statement.
Indeed, the authors concluded that their findings show that, "alternative measures of access to medical care for the uninsured, such as community health centers, do not provide the protection of private health insurance."
Intermittent insurance also appeared to take a toll on health, the authors wrote, although the survey provided no information on the effects of losing or gaining insurance, as it only recorded reported insurance status at the time the survey was taken.
"The Institute of Medicine, using older studies, estimated that one American dies every 30 minutes from lack of health insurance," David Himmelstein, a study co-author and associate professor of medicine at Harvard, said in a prepared statement. "Even this grim figure is an underestimate—now one dies every 12 minutes."