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Bernie Sanders Overstates Number of Americans Without Health Insurance

Explaining why he is likely to vote against an $858 billion defense spending bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders wrongly stated that there are “85 million Americans who have no health insurance.” The government estimate is about 27 million.

The Vermont independent — who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, and hasn’t ruled out running in 2024 — made his remarks on CNN’s “State of the Union.” When asked if he would vote against the defense bill that passed the House on Dec. 8, Sanders replied, “Yes, I think I will,” and then called for spending more on domestic needs.

Sanders, Dec. 11: Look, we have — we have 85 million Americans who have no health insurance. We have 600,000 people who are homeless. We have a dysfunctional health care system, dysfunctional childcare system, where working parents are paying $15,000 a year, on average, for child care. We have got to start protecting the needs of working families.

Health Insurance

The figure Sanders gave for the number of Americans without health insurance is wrong. As we wrote two months ago, 27.2 million people, or 8.3% of the U.S. population, did not have health insurance at any point in 2021, according to the Census Bureau’s latest annual report.

Also, the National Health Interview Survey, which measures the number of uninsured at the time people were interviewed, placed the uninsured figure at 27.4 million in a new report released earlier this month.

NHIS, Dec. 1: From January through June 2022, 27.4 million people of all ages (8.3%) were uninsured at the time of interview. This was lower than 2021, when 30.0 million people of all ages (9.2%) were uninsured.

Sanders apparently misspoke. “It’s 85 million uninsured or underinsured,” Mike Casca, the senator’s spokesperson, told us, citing a September report by the Commonwealth Fund. Sanders has used that statistic before. In an October opinion piece for the Hill, Sanders wrote that “85 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured.”

But that’s not right, either.

The Commonwealth Fund study cited by Sanders’ office estimated that 43% of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 were “inadequately insured” at the time of the survey, which was conducted between March and July. The report says the biennial survey is “representative of approximately 196.7 million U.S. adults ages 19 to 64,” meaning about 84.6 million adults were “inadequately insured” at the time of the survey.

That’s where Sanders got his 85 million figure. However, the 85 million includes 21.6 million who were insured at the time of the survey but had a gap in coverage at some point in the 12 months prior to the date of the survey, the study said. That means 63 million were either uninsured at the time of the survey or underinsured — contrary to what Sanders said in his op-ed.

Sanders has been making a version of this health insurance claim for a long time. It was one of his talking points during his unsuccessful run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

At three presidential debates in 2019, Sanders said 87 million Americans have no health insurance or are underinsured. But, as we wrote then, the 87 million in the Commonwealth Fund report included 19.3 million who were insured but had been uninsured at some point in the prior year, according to the report.

Child Care Costs and Homelessness

The senator’s office did not provide us with a source for Sanders’ statement that “working parents are paying $15,000 a year, on average, for child care.” If it does, we will update this item.

The cost is high, but the national average may not be as high as Sanders said. Also, how high depends on where you live.

We could find no official government source for the national average annual cost of child care, but two federal departments have cited reports from Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit that calls itself “the nation’s leading voice on child care.”

In a report issued last year on the economics of child care, the Department of Treasury said the national average was $10,000 in 2017, citing a 2018 report from Child Care Aware. In a separate report on the rising cost of child care from 1995 to 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services cited a 2019 Child Care Aware report.

Child Care Aware has since issued a new report that puts the national average at “around $10,600” in 2021, but warns that the amount “varies dramatically from state to state.” In an appendix to its 2021 report, Child Care Aware estimated that the annual cost of full-time, center-based infant care ranged from a low of $7,280 in Mississippi to a high of $25,523 in Washington, D.C.

Lastly, there is support for Sanders’ statement that there are “600,000 people who are homeless” in the United States.

In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Analysis released in June, three University of Chicago researchers put the homeless figure at 500,000 to 600,000. That report said, “Our analyses suggest that on a given night there are 500,000-600,000 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S., about one-third of whom are sleeping on the streets and two-thirds in shelters.”

Separately, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual homeless assessment report in February for 2021 that said “more than 326,000 people experienced sheltered homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2021.” But that figure doesn’t include the unsheltered homeless. The report said HUD was “only able to provide national estimates on sheltered homelessness,” because of incomplete data on the unsheltered homeless population.

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