New figures released in September by the Census Bureau show that enrollment in employer-sponsored health plans in 2009 was at its lowest level since 1997, after a dizzying drop.

Down 3.7% between 2008 and 2009, the number in 2009 was a bit below 170 million, as reported by NU Online News Service. It had not dropped below 170 million in 13 years; 1997 figures showed that 166 million people were covered by employers’ health insurance.

The percentage in the statistics provided by the Census Bureau stood at 55.8% in 2009; it had been 58.5% in 2008. When the Bureau began recording these statistics in 1987, the percentage stood at 62.1%. It stayed above 60% in most years until 2005, when a small drop was recorded. It has now been losing ground steadily at an accelerating rate. The only other year when the rate drop was so precipitous was 1991, when it hit 59.7%, down from 60.4%.

Last year alone, according to Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, nearly 7 million people lost health care coverage that they had held through an employer. The numbers serve as proof, she says, that middle-class families need the coverage subsidy options in the Affordable Care Act.

Health insurance groups, on the other hand, argue that they demonstrate the need to eliminate government-imposed insurance mandates.