Adding a new dimension to current political debates over health care, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the number of individuals without health insurance continued to grow in 2006.

In terms of both pure numbers as well as a ratio of the population, people without health insurance increased in 2006, the bureau says in a new report. The number of uninsured rose from 44.8 million to 47 million, while the percentage without health insurance increased from 15.3% of the population in 2005 to 15.8% in 2006.

U.S.-born residents who were uninsured increased from 33 million to 34.4 million in the period, or from 12.8% to 13.2% of people in this group.

The number of foreign-born uninsured rose from 11.8 million in 2005 to 12.6 million, while their rate was statistically unchanged at 33.8% in 2006.

Looking at ethnic differences, the number of uninsured among non-Hispanic whites remained statistically unchanged in 2006 at 21.2 million or 10.8%, the bureau found.

For blacks, the number and percentage increased, from 7 million in 2005 to 7.6 million and from 19% in 2005 to 20.5%.

The number and percentage of uninsured Hispanics increased from 14 million (32.3%) in 2005 to 15.3 million (34.1%).

The number of uninsured Asians remained statistically unchanged, at 2 million in 2006, while their uninsured rate declined to 15.5% from 17.2% in 2005.

Regionally, the Midwest had the lowest uninsured rate in 2006, at 11.4%, followed by the Northeast (12.3%), the West (17.9%), and the South (19%). Increases in uninsured were most noteworthy in the Northeast and South where uninsured rates for 2005 rates had been 11.7% and 18%, respectively.

Among states, Texas had the highest percentage of uninsured using a 3-year average, with 24.1%. The rates for Minnesota (8.5%), Hawaii (8.6%), Iowa (9.3%), Wisconsin (9.4%) and Maine (9.5%) were lowest.

Other highlight’s of the bureau’s report:

o The number of people with health insurance increased to 249.8 million in 2006 from 249 million in 2005. The number of people covered by private health insurance in 2006 (201.7 million) and the number covered by government health insurance (80.3 million) were not statistically different from 2005.

o The percentage of people covered by employment-based health insurance fell to 59.7% in 2006, from 60.2% in 2005.

o The percentage of people covered by government health programs decreased to 27% in 2006 from 27.3% in 2005. Both the percentage and number of people covered by Medicaid were statistically unchanged, at 38.3 million and 12.9%.

Of potential significance to the debate in Washington over the proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the number of children under 18 years old without health insurance rose from 8 million in 2005 to 8.7 million last year.

As terms of percentages of the total population of children, the ratio of uninsured rose from 10.9% in 2005 to 11.7% in 2006

Federal and state policymakers should work swiftly to address the problem of increasing numbers of uninsured, advocates for both the public and the health insurance industry said in the wake of the report.

Commenting on the data, the head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, N.J., called for bipartisan cooperation in renewing SCHIP.

“We need to safeguard the program and strengthen it so that more children who are already eligible for SCHIP can get covered,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the foundation. “The alternative is to divide our children further into those who get a fair chance at a healthy life and those who don’t.”

“Now more than ever Congress and the states need to act to ensure that all Americans have access to health care coverage,” said Karen Ignani, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans. “Forty-seven million Americans cannot afford to wait until after the next election to address this critical issue.”

Federal lawmakers could take an important first step by reauthorizing SCHIP, which “provides a vital health care safety net for low-income children,” Ignani said.

Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, New York, called news of the increasing number of the insured “very disturbing” and said it was “unacceptable that the U.S. as one of the world’s richest nations is not acting to ensure health insurance coverage for all.”

She also called on lawmakers to swiftly reauthorize SCHIP, saying that doing so is “essential to prevent a reversal of the progress made through public health insurance programs over the last 6 years.”