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AHCPR Releases Preliminary Data from New Survey

Press Release Date: May 1, 1997

The federal government's Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) today announced the availability of the first data for 1996 from the household component of its new Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). This nationally representative survey, cosponsored by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), collects detailed information on the health status, health care use and expenses, and health insurance coverage of individuals and families in the United States, including nursing home residents, at different intervals and over time.

"The data we release today provide a `first look' set of estimates of the number of uninsured Americans in 1996," said AHCPR's Administrator, John M. Eisenberg, M.D. "We are rapidly improving the timeliness of the data we provide to policymakers."

Dr. Eisenberg added that when the full-year estimates of the uninsured are published, they are expected to be somewhat lower than the estimates released today because some of the people who were uninsured in the early part of the year would have obtained coverage later. AHCPR will release more complete, full-year data in mid-1998.

The estimates are based on interviews conducted during the first several months of the year. The data show that an estimated 17 percent of the U.S. civilian, non-institutionalized population did not have private or public health insurance at any time in the first part of 1996.

The survey also found that:

  • Men were more likely (19 percent) than women (15 percent) to be uninsured.
  • Persons in the South and West were more likely to be uninsured than those in the Northeast or Midwest. Forty-one percent of all uninsured Americans lived in the South.
  • Over 33 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of Blacks Americans, and slightly under 14 percent of other Americans were uninsured.
  • More than 15 percent of children under 18 years of age were uninsured.

Dr. Eisenberg said the MEPS estimates of the uninsured differ somewhat from those of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) and of NCHS's National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) because of definitional and methodological differences.

The surveys differ in the "reference period" for estimating the uninsured. For example, the CPS counts persons who are uninsured for a full year, while the NHIS measures persons who lack insurance at a given point in time—the month before their interview. For the preliminary data released today, MEPS considered persons uninsured if they had no health care coverage from January 1, 1996 until the date of their first interview—an average of five months. When full-year MEPS data are available, AHCPR will be able to compare reference periods similar to those used by the two other surveys.

Another difference is that CPS counts the children of adults covered by Medicaid as being insured. MEPS does not consider children of Medicaid-covered adults as being insured unless their families report them as such.

Said Dr. Eisenberg, "Once adjustments are made for these differences, the surveys paint a strikingly similar picture." Dr. Eisenberg added that MEPS is unique because it links information on respondents' insurance status with their employment status, use of health services and health status over a two-year period. This enables researchers to examine in depth the effects of having or not having health care coverage on access to medical care and health, as well as other health care issues on which MEPS collects data.

NCHS Director Edward Sondik, Ph.D., said, "With the release of today's findings, we begin to see the fruits of the Department's effort to address critical data gaps and emerging health data needs in a timely fashion." Streamlining data collection also reduces costs. Because MEPS uses the same sampling source as NHIS, which is larger, the Department has saved several million dollars in avoided duplication and lower data collection costs.

Dr. Sondik also announced that additional information on the uninsured will be available later this year from NHIS data. "The rich data that the National Health Interview Survey provides, in conjunction with MEPS data, will further inform policymakers and others concerned about access to health care," said Dr. Sondik.

"Together, these two powerful data sets provide the most detailed blueprint ever of health care today for all Americans," said Dr. Eisenberg.

Another key feature of MEPS is its medical provider and insurance plan followup surveys which corroborate information given by respondents. The insurance plan survey also provides information on the coverage available from employers and its cost. A separate nursing home component gathers information on the demographic characteristics, health and functional status, use of services and other information about nursing home residents. Both the household and nursing home surveys collect data on health care expenditures.

MEPS replaces the National Medical Expenditure Survey, which was last conducted in 1987 by AHCPR's predecessor, the National Center for Health Services Research and Health Care Technology Assessment.

A document summarizing the data released today, entitled MEPS Highlights: The Uninsured in America—1996 (Publication No. 97-0025), also includes a technical explanation of differences between MEPS and other major surveys of the uninsured—essential for anyone who wants to conduct an independent analysis of the MEPS data. This publication is available from the AHCPR Publications Clearinghouse by writing to P.O. Box 8547, Silver Spring, Md. 20907-8547, or calling (800) 358-9295. For more information, select MEPS.

In addition, public use micro data files of the MEPS Round 1 data from the household are available on CD-ROM (Publication No. 97-DP20) from the AHCPR Publications Clearinghouse.

Future MEPS data releases from the household component will cover satisfaction with health plans, access to health care, children's health status, and use of managed care and other health care providers, health care expenditures, source of payment for health care charges, and disability days.

For additional information, contact AHCPR Public Affairs: Karen Migdail, (301) 427-1855 ,; Karen Carp, (301) 427-1858,; Salina Prasad, (301) 427-1864,

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