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Keywords:

  • Employer sponsored health insurance;
  • premiums;
  • low-income workers

Objective. We investigate the factors driving the downward trend in employer sponsored health insurance (ESI) coverage between 1999 and 2002 for low- and middle-income workers, and assess their insurance options in the absence of ESI coverage.

Data. We use the 1999 and 2002 rounds of the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), supplemented with ESI premiums from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, as well as other state- and county-level data from a variety of sources. The sample includes workers between the ages of 19 and 64.

Study Design. We first estimate linear probability models of the probability of having an ESI offer and, for those with an offer, the probability of taking up ESI coverage, using two-stage least square regression on the 2002 worker sample. We then use Oaxaca–Blinder regression-based decomposition methods to identify the factors that explain the changes in ESI offer and take-up between 1999 and 2002.

Principal Findings. We find that while low-income workers are more likely to be uninsured and are most vulnerable to the loss of ESI coverage, many middle-income workers are also in a precarious position when faced with the loss of ESI coverage. Many low- and middle-income workers have few coverage options in the absence of ESI. This is particularly problematic for low-income workers: only 13 percent have a spouse with an ESI offer and the nongroup premium they face increased at a much higher rate than for middle-income workers. Finally, we find that the drop in ESI offers between 1999 and 2002 was driven largely by changes in nature of the workers' jobs, while the drop in ESI take-up was driven largely by rising ESI premiums.

Conclusions. Policies that shore up the ESI system are important for both low- and middle-income workers, as both are vulnerable to a loss of insurance coverage in the absence of ESI. Over time, the potential coverage options available to low- and middle-income workers in the absence of ESI have narrowed as nongroup premiums have increased. While public coverage has provided some protection from that increase for low-income workers, middle-income workers are much less likely to have access to public protection.