NU Online News Service, Aug. 23, 6:03 p.m. – New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 2000 was a pretty good year for health coverage for the “near elderly.”

The percentage of U.S. residents between the ages of 55 and 64 who had some kind of public or private health coverage in 2000 increased to 86.3%, from 85.5% in 1999.

The percentage of near elderly residents who were completely uninsured fell to 13.7%. That was the lowest level since 1995, according to an analysis by Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington.

But Fronstin warns in the analysis, which appears in the August EBRI Notes newsletter, that the good times for the near elderly might be ending.

“The currently slow economy, combined with erosion in retiree health benefits for future retirees and lack of a Medicare prescription drug benefit, will have profound implications for public policy,” Fronstin writes.

Even in 2000, a year when the U.S. job market was still strong, the near elderly benefited from a modest expansion in individual insurance programs and public health insurance programs rather than expansion of employment-based coverage.

The percentage of the near elderly covered by employment-based health plans fell to 66.8%, from 67%, Fronstin reports.

Although nearly elderly residents with family incomes below $30,000 were more likely to be uninsured than higher income elderly residents, 7.7% of near-elderly men and 10.8% of near-elderly women with family incomes over $30,000 were uninsured in 2000.

The near elderly are much more likely than most other U.S. residents to have health coverage, but experts emphasize that the near elderly have a greater need for coverage because they tend to be more likely to need medical care.