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Many children uninsured

Numbers are rising in spite of state programs

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Nationwide, the percentage of uninsured children has decreased dramatically in the past decade. At the same time, however, the number of uninsured youngsters in Utah continues to grow.

According to a newly released report, the number of uninsured children nationwide has dropped 20 percent, or 2 million children, since Congress approved the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997. Since that time, the number of children on public health insurance programs has grown by more than 6 percent, while the number of kids with private insurance has dropped about 3.5 percent.

"Those state CHIP programs and Medicaid, they really, combined, are the safety net for our children," said Elaine Arkin with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which released today's "The State of Kids' Coverage" report.

Still, an estimated 8.3 million of the country's children — including some 70,000 in Utah — have no health insurance. And while the report notes that the rate of uninsured Utah children dropped between 1997-98 and 2003-04, the actual number grew by more than 1,000 kids.

The Utah Department of Health has even more dramatic figures, noting a 35 percent increase in uninsured Utah children between 2001 and 2005.

According to the report, an estimated 70 percent of uninsured children in Utah and across the country are eligible for a public insurance program, either CHIP or Medicaid. It is that demographic that officials hope to target with an aggressive back-to-school campaign that kicks off today.

"We're undertaking a major 21-day push to enroll as many children as we possibly can," said Karen Crompton, executive director of Voices for Utah Children.

The Utah effort is part of a national push to make sure all children have some type of insurance. Because of the link between healthy children and success in school, the campaign is timed to coincide with the start of school later this month.

"Kids need health coverage 365 days a year," Crompton said. "Without it, small problems become real health risks. Vision problems that go unchecked can affect a child's ability to learn in school. An earache that goes untreated threatens to become a hearing problem or a toothache becomes a raging infection. Again, things that can result in kids missing days in school."

There are a variety of reasons why parents haven't enrolled their eligible children in public health insurance programs, Crompton said.

"Some of it is people have concerns about publicly funded programs. A lot of it may be, though, that people aren't aware," she said. "In surveys that have been done, the No. 1 reason is most people don't think they qualify."

Parents can check their children's eligibility and apply online at www.health.utah.gov/chip or by calling 1-877-KIDS-NOW. The Utah Department of Health is accepting enrollment applications for the state's program now through Sept. 1 at 5 p.m.

As of Aug. 1, Utah's CHIP had 36,005 children enrolled, spokeswoman Jennie Erickson said. For federal fiscal 2007, the program has a $51.3 million budget, with the state contributing $10.3 million and the remainder coming from the federal government.

According to today's report, children who are not insured for an entire year are less likely to receive any medical care. In Utah, 28 percent of children who were uninsured for all or part of 2003 received no medical care at all. For those children with insurance all year long, only 16 percent failed to receive any medical care.

The report also shows that non-white children have higher rates of uninsurance, with Hispanic children at the highest rate of uninsurance — 21 percent nationwide in 2003-04. In the same time period, white children had a 7.5 percent uninsurance rate.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com