The Key Lesson Of Today's Healthcare News

THE KEY LESSON OF TODAY'S HEALTHCARE NEWS.... If you swing by MSNBC's homepage right now, you'll see the main headline reads, "Number of uninsured Americans drops." The report's lede reports, "The Census Bureau reports that the number of people lacking health insurance dropped by more than 1 million in 2007, the first annual decline since the Bush administration took office."

That is, to be sure, good news. But it's important, in a political context, not to misread how this progress was achieved. One assumes the right will see the encouraging data and say, "See? The market is working, more people are getting insured, and there's no reason for government intervention." The reality is, more people are getting insured because of government intervention.

TNR's Jonathan Cohn encourages us to "take a closer look at the numbers."

Enrollment in private insurance continued to decline in percentage terms, mostly because the percentage of people with employer-sponsored coverage fell from 59.7 to 59.3. The reason the overall numbers look good is rising enrollment in public insurance programs, particularly Medicaid. In other words, if not for more robust public insurance, it's likely far more people would be without medical coverage. And that's true of the long-term, as well. Employer-sponsored insurance has declined over the last 30 years or so, as rising costs have made it harder for employers and employees to pay for it. If not for the expansions of eligibility for Medicaid and establishment of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, many more people would be without insurance and, as a result, struggling to pay their medical bills.

So the case for expanding public insurance -- ideally, to help cover everybody -- isn't weaker because of the new numbers. If anything, it's stronger.

Paul Krugman also noted the cyclical context: "The key point is that 2007 was the end of an economic expansion.... So 2007 was as good as it got in this cycle. Yet median household income was lower than in 2000, while both the poverty rate and the percentage of Americans without health insurance were higher. In short, the economic policies we've been following just aren't working."

Given that John McCain insists we need to continue with the identical economic policies for another four years, here's hoping today's news gets a little more attention.