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Pre-existing conditions common in the U.S.

In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released an analysis estimating that 50 million to 129 million non-elderly Americans have pre-existing conditions. Under the current health care system, insurance companies can deny coverage to people with such conditions.

The HHS analysis emphasizes the fact that, under the new health care reform law, Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot be penalized in the form of coverage denial or higher premiums. Reform opponents on the right have not allowed the report to go unanswered.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, responded in a blog post that characterized the findings as "misleading and wildly inaccurate," and asserted that the existing health care system already works to treat people with pre-existing conditions: "Individuals who do the right thing (getting and keeping coverage) are rewarded; individuals who do the wrong thing (waiting until they are sick to buy coverage) are penalized."

HHS analysts arrived at the figures by identifying conditions that would likely cause people to be denied coverage and then, with the help of a 2008 survey that measured the number of medical visits pertaining to those conditions, estimated the number of people with those conditions.

The lower estimate was calculated by using eligibility guidelines from high-risk pools as defined by seven major insurance companies. The higher estimate includes common conditions, such as arthritis and obesity, that can also affect a person's ability to obtain coverage, or premium costs.

The idea of 50 million or 129 million people can be hard to conceptualize. Here are figures to provide context:

Fifty million people, the HHS's lower estimate of the number of Americans with pre-existing conditions, is:

*One-fifth of the non-elderly population of the United States.

*16 percent of the total U.S. population.

*The combined population of California and Illinois.

*The population of South Africa.

*More than 13 million more than the U.S. foreign-born population.

*Nearly 5 million more than all Americans of Hispanic or Latino origin.

*The size of the U.S. black and Asian populations, combined.

*More than twice the U.S. population over 16 employed in the service industry.

*The figure of 129 million, the HHS's upper estimate, is:

*Nearly 3 million more people than the populations of the six most populous U.S. states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

*Roughly 2 million more than the population of Japan.

*3 million fewer than the estimated total U.S. voter turnout in 2008.

*More than twice the number of children under 18 years old in the United States.

*More than twice the number of Americans who identify as nonwhite.

*More than half of the number of Americans who identify as white.

*91 percent of the U.S. civilian employed population over the age of 16.


Sources: 2010 Census (state populations), Census Bureau's 2005-2009 American Community Survey (race and ethnicity, employment), CIA World Factbook (international populations).

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