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Lack of health insurance played a role in thousands of child deaths, researchers say

October 29, 2009 | 11:18 am

An analysis of 23 million hospital records from 37 states shows that a lack of health insurance likely played a role in the deaths of nearly 17,000 U.S. children over a 17-year period.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Children's Center examined records from 1988 to 2005. They compared the risk of death in hospitalized children who were covered by health insurance with those who did not, and found that uninsured kids were 60% more likely to die, regardless of their medical condition. This does not mean that the children received less aggressive care at the hospital but that they were probably in poorer health before the arrived, researchers said. Insurance status did not affect how long a child spent in the hospital, according to the study.

The study did not count children who died outside the hospital or after leaving the hospital, which means that deaths among uninsured children are probably even higher. The report will be published Friday in the Journal of Public Health.

"Can we say with absolute certainty that 17,000 children would have been saved if they had health insurance? Of course not," a co-author of the study report, David Chang, said in a news release. "The point here is that a substantial number of children may be saved by health coverage. From a scientific perspective, we are confident in our findings that thousands of children likely did die because they lacked insurance or because of factors directly related to lack of insurance."

As the healthcare reform debate reaches a critical stage in Washington, the study is a reminder of the human cost of healthcare inequality. About 7 million American children are uninsured.

"In a country as wealthy as ours, the need to provide health insurance to the millions of children who lack it is a moral, not an economic issue," Dr. Peter Pronovost, a co-author of the study, said in a news release.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Healthcare reform advocates protest outside the offices of Cigna Insurance in Los Angeles. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images