With just three weeks left to sign up for health insurance coverage for 2014 through the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” a major survey tracking the rollout finds that it’s having an impact on the number of uninsured Americans.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, released Monday, found that 15.9 percent of U.S. adults are uninsured, down from 17.1 percent for the last three months of 2013.
That translates to new coverage for 3 million to 4 million people. What's more, Gallup said the share of Americans who lack coverage is on track to drop to the lowest quarterly level it measured since 2008, before President Barack Obama took office.
The survey, which was given to a random sample of more than 28,000 adults across the U.S. in January and February 2014, found that almost every major demographic group made progress getting health insurance.
Gallup found the biggest drop in the uninsured rate was among households making less than $36,000 a year, with a decline of 2.8 percentage points.
Among blacks, the uninsured rate was down by 2.6 percentage points. It declined by 1 percentage point among whites, and Latinos saw a drop of just eight-tenths of a percentage point.
With the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group, Latinos were expected to be major beneficiaries of the new health care law. They are a relatively young population, and many are on the lower rungs of the middle class, holding down jobs that don't come with health insurance.
But the outreach effort to Latinos got off to a stumbling start. The Spanish-language enrollment website, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, was delayed because of technical problems. Its name sounds like a clunky translation from English: "Care of Health." A spot check of the Spanish site on Sunday showed that parts of it still use a mix of Spanish and English, which can make insurance details even more confusing.
Lackluster Latino numbers prompted the administration to make a special pitch as the end of open enrollment season approaches on March 31. The president appeared on Spanish-language television networks last week to raise awareness.
The states running their own insurance exchanges are making concerted efforts to enroll Latinos too. Covered California, for example, has commissioned civil rights leader Dolores Huerta to make the pitch for signing up for health insurance in a series of radio and TV ads targeting the Latino community.
The Gallup poll is considered authoritative because it combines the scope and depth found in government surveys with the timeliness of media sampling. The survey can be an early indicator of broad shifts in society. Gallup saw a modest decline in the uninsured rate in January, and now two full months of data indicate a trend is taking shape.
Gallup said the drop coincides with the start of coverage under the health care law on Jan. 1. The major elements of the Affordable Care Act are now in effect. Virtually all Americans are now required to get covered or risk fines. Insurers can no longer turn away people with health problems, and new state-based markets are offering taxpayer-subsidized private insurance to middle-class households.
Medicaid rolls are also growing, with about half the states agreeing to the option to expand the program under the law. Low-income people who qualify for Medicaid are able to sign up year round, so the uninsured rate may keep going down even after the end of open enrollment for private coverage.
The Obama administration is citing enrollment numbers that are far higher: about 4 million people signing up for private coverage and 9 million for Medicaid.
But those statistics include people who already had health insurance and switched to coverage offered under the law. Also, the government's numbers include children, while Gallup's focus on adults.
Results of another Gallup survey conducted in February and released Friday found that 55 percent of Americans who were uninsured would rather buy insurance than pay a fine. That number is similar to results from the same poll taken in January and down from 63 percent last fall.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press