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8.4 million Californians lack health coverage as the ranks of the uninsured swell, study finds

August 23, 2010 |  2:07 pm

The number of Californians who lost jobs and health insurance probably increased in every county last year, according to a study released Monday by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The new analysis found that 37 counties -- including Imperial, Kern and Shasta -- had uninsured rates above the statewide average of 24.3%.

"Different parts of the state were more adversely impacted than others, but really it is spread across the state," said one of the study's authors, Shana Alex Lavarreda, the center's director of health insurance studies.

"You have counties from Kern to Shasta that were hit very hard with averages over what we saw in Los Angeles," she added.

The report backs up the findings of a previous study the center released in March that showed nearly one in four Californians lack health insurance. According to the latest estimates, the state's uninsured population has reached 24.3%, or about 8.4 million, up from 6.4 million in 2007.

Among the hardest-hit areas were counties in Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and the Northern Sierras, according to the report. In Los Angeles County, 28.9% of residents were uninsured for all or part of last year, the largest number of uninsured residents of any county in the state.

That is compared with 32.7% uninsured in Shasta County, 22.9% in San Diego County, 17.6% in Sacramento County and 15% in Alameda County, according to the report.

Researchers estimated the county uninsured rates based on data from the 2007 California Health Interview Survey, last year's county unemployment and household income data and county-level Medi-Cal and Healthy Families public health insurance enrollment data from 2007 to 2009.

Areas with high rates and numbers of uninsured tended to be those that experienced sharp increases in local unemployment and corresponding drops in both household income and job-based coverage, Lavarreda said.

On the flip side, areas that did not see a lot of massive layoffs, like the Bay Area, had fewer uninsured, she said.

"Our system is still based on job-based coverage and if you don't lose the jobs, you're a lot better off," Lavarreda said, adding that many areas that experienced unemployment increases did not see a corresponding increase in public insurance, even though many of those who lost their jobs became eligible for the public programs.

"Many people just don't understand how the system works if they don’t get coverage through their job," she said.

The study notes that the major elements of national healthcare reform legislation aimed at helping middle- and lower-income families will not take effect until 2014, including the expansion of Medi-Cal and federal subsidies for purchasing health insurance through a state-based exchange.

Lavarreda stressed that policymakers need to come up with solutions to caring for the uninsured in the interim.

"The depths of the recession outstripped healthcare policy," she said. "It felt like they were moving very quickly, but people need more help now."

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske