When Barbara Olauson's son had an accident on a North Dakota farm in October 1993, Olauson's husband was earning an annual salary of $12,000.

After their son stayed 11/2 days in a Bismarck hospital, the Olausons were presented with a bill for almost $4,000. The Olausons had no insurance, and there was no way the couple could pay off the huge bill with their earnings.Some 31/2 years later, the bill still haunts them.

Now relocated in Utah, the Olausons were forced to finance a home loan at a higher interest rate after the unpaid medical bill showed up on their credit report.

Barbara Olauson thought the hospital had forgiven the debt because of the family's obvious inability to pay.

A recently released study shows millions of American families and tens of thousands of Utah children are without insurance like the Olausons were.

A study prepared by the Families USA organization said 25 percent of Utah's children - or 173,000 - did not have health insurance for at least one month during 1995 and 1996.

Despite the high number of children without health insurance, Utah ranks in the upper fifth of all states in the percentage of children insured. And the state is well below the national average of children without insurance - 33 percent of American children are uninsured. Nationwide, that means more than 23 million children don't have health insurance.

If passed, federal legislation currently under consideration would provide insurance for millions of America's poor children. Bills supported by Sense. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., would ensure that health care is available for all children, funded by an increase in the federal cigarette tax.

Critics, mostly conservative Republicans, have blasted Hatch for supporting the measure, saying the reform will be a tremendous waste of money and create a new tier of bureaucracy just to administer the program. Some also say the Hatch-Kennedy legislation will result in unscrupulous employers refusing to insure employees' children because they know Washington will pick up the tab.

Until health care is a given for all American children, Dr. Tom Metcalf, a Salt Lake pediatrician, said parents without insurance will continue to wait until the last possible moment before bringing their children's health concerns to the attention of their doctor.

Overall, the lack of preventive health care translates into a loss of millions of dollars annually.

"For every dollar you spend in preventive child care, you save, I believe, it's something like $11 in overall society costs for acute care for injuries and illnesses which could have been prevented," Metcalf said.

Current state and federal systems designed to provide health care for those uninsured clearly aren't filling the gap, many working people can't afford to buy health care, and the small businesses they frequently work for don't have the capital to provide it.

Unless national health protection for children becomes a reality, families like the Olausons will probably search for jobs that will provide health insurance. Barbara Olauson said one reason the family returned to the state was so her husband could get work with a former employer who promised health insurance.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Children without medical insurance

At least one month over a two year period

..................C H I L D R E N

State Number* Percent Rank

Arizona 465,000 38% 8

Colorado 303,000 30% 26

Hawaii 67,000 24% 48

Idaho 97,000 30% 25

Louisiana 529,000 43% 3

Montana 68,000 30% 24

Nevada 149,000 37% 9

New Hampshire 67,000 24% 49

New Mexico 241,000 43% 2

Texas 2,614,000 46% 1

Utah 173,000 25% 42

Wisconsin 322,000 23% 50

Wyoming 44,000 32% 16

*Estimate