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Percentage uninsured here below state, U.S. But advocates say number is a concern

The percentage of people without health insurance in the Buffalo Niagara region is lower than estimates for both the state and nation, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Still, the 10.3 percent of uninsured residents in Niagara County and 7.2 percent in Erie County represent a large number -- 86,123 people. That remains a source of concern for those advocating an expansion of insurance coverage as Congress debates health reform.

"We can't let health reform take us backwards in New York State," said Diana Cihak, chairwoman of the Western New York Health Care Campaign.

The organization is a coalition of groups -- including the American Cancer Society, Communication Workers of America and Citizen Action -- supporting more affordable and accessible health care.

Nationwide, 15.4 percent of Americans -- or 46.3 million people -- lacked health insurance in 2008, according to the Census Bureau. The number of uninsured increased from 45.7 million in 2007, but the percentage remained unchanged at 15.4 percent as the population also grew.

Among states, estimates of the uninsured in 2008 ranged from a low of 4.1 percent in Massachusetts to a high of 24.1 percent in Texas. New York was at 11.7 percent.

Cihak and others cited a handful of reasons for the lower percentages of uninsured in Erie and Niagara counties compared with other metropolitan areas in the country. These include New York State's fairly broad public health insurance programs and aggressive efforts to enroll individuals.

Other noteworthy changes between 2007 and 2008 revealed in the Census Bureau survey:

*The number of people covered by private health insurance decreased to 201.0 million from 202.0 million, while the number covered by government health insurance -- such as Medicare, Medicaid and state insurance programs for children -- climbed to 87.4 million from 83 million.

*The number covered by employment-based health insurance declined to 176.3 million from 177.4 million.

*The number of uninsured children fell to 7.3 million from 8.1 million, the lowest since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data was collected.

The survey covered 38 counties in New York State with 65,000 or more people.

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

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