No matter what policymakers try, whittling down the numbers of those without coverage is a bear of a challenge. With 18% of the nonelderly now uninsured, "The best we're going to do is about 15%," said Fronstin.
But Marilyn Moon, PhD, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Urban Institute, is more optimistic that federal policy can beat down the numbers. "It's not going to go to zero, and it's not going to be easy to get it to 10%, but I do think we could do better than 15%," she tells WebMD.
A report issued earlier last month by the Institute for the Future and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave a middle-of-the-road forecast that 48 million Americans would be uninsured by 2010, the same percentage of the nonelderly population as today. The report's alternative blue-sky prediction was for 30 million uninsured -- 11.5% of the nonelderly populace -- while its pessimistic alternative estimated that 65 million -- 25% -- would be without insurance.
While getting coverage for the uninsured is a complex nut to crack, coverage appears strong for the rest of the population. The country's robust economy is keeping many employers from dropping health insurance plans.
EBRI reported that the proportion of employed workers with health coverage has risen for the fifth straight year: Just under 65% of nonelderly Americans had coverage under an employer plan, the institute said.
"Employers are responding to the tight labor market," Fronstin noted, although he expressed "concern" that medical inflation is on the rise.
But Moon tells WebMD, "I'm not cheered that there's only been modest improvement in health insurance coverage. Times are awfully good."
Employers and health plans argue that enactment of the "patients' bill of rights" could throw more than a million Americans off of employer coverage; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill passed by the House would increase insurance premiums by more than 4%.
But Fronstin tells WebMD that this doomsday scenario is unlikely, with businesses desperate for workers, they are unlikely to discontinue coverage even if it became more expensive. Unemployment, he notes, is currently just 4%.
The briefing Friday was held by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Alliance for Health Reform, nonprofit policy groups.