The recession increased unemployment and forced many businesses to scale back benefits, resulting in an additional 1.4 million people without health insurance last year, Census Bureau figures show.
Roughly 41.2 million people, or 14.6 percent of U.S. residents, lacked health coverage for all of 2001, compared with 14.2 percent the previous year, according to bureau estimates released Monday.
The share of the population covered under private, employment-based plans declined from 64 percent to 63 percent last year. "That was the principal cause of the overall decrease," bureau analyst Robert Mills said.
Reflecting the broad impact of the recession, rates of uninsured rose across all income levels, as well as among full- and part-time workers and U.S.-born residents and immigrants.
Still, the percentage of children without health coverage declined slightly, from 11.9 percent to 11.7 percent, a sign that more lower-income families and children may have picked up coverage through government programs.
The share of people covered under Medicaid rose from 10.6 percent to 11.2 percent.
"The only silver lining in this year's report is that public programs covered more people last year and cushioned the loss of coverage in the private sector," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal health advocacy group.
Kate Sullivan, director of health care policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the numbers indicate the need to help more small businesses provide health insurance.
"It's time to create more employer options for health plans and to give those who purchase coverage on their own the same tax advantages as those who receive it through their jobs," she said.
About 23 percent of people earning less than $25,000 lacked health insurance, roughly three times the percentage of those earning $75,000 and above.
Additionally, disparities between whites and minorities persisted. About one-third of Hispanics were without health insurance for all of 2001, compared with 20 percent of blacks or Asians, and about 10 percent of whites.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson urged Congress to approve a Bush administration plan that he said would provide more access to health care to those most in need.
President Bush "is proposing more community health clinics, health credits and more freedom for states to extend insurance to those who need it," Thompson said. "As this new report shows, we simply cannot afford to wait any longer."
Democrats have been critical of Bush's proposal to give tax credits to help people buy health insurance. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the report was "a loud wake-up call for Congress and the president."
Leighton Ku of the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities expects more people will join the uninsured ranks because the economy continues to struggle and many state assistance programs face cuts.
In addition to the 2001 data, the Census Bureau on Monday revised its figures for 2000, saying 39.8 million people were uninsured that year — 1.1 million more than previously estimated.
Estimates are produced in part using the most recent census data. The statistics in the latest report were based on the 2000 head count, unlike last year's estimates, based on the 1990 census.
The Census Bureau's estimates are considered the government's most thorough look at the uninsured. Preliminary data from a smaller survey released this month from the National Center for Health Statistics indicated a slight increase in the uninsured through the first three months of 2002.