SALT LAKE CITY — Utah still has a large portion of children without health insurance and national researchers believe that could not only be hurting them, but the future economy of the state.
New national research shows the number of uninsured children is trending upward — for the first time in nearly a decade.
Utah's rate of uninsured children increased only slightly from 2016 to 2017, though is still above the national average, with more than 67,134 children uninsured.
"It's not just minorities or children from low-income homes. This is impacting all kids," said Elizabeth Lukanen, deputy director at the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, which tracks health policy across the country.
She said that when parents get coverage, kids will too.
Fewer grownups enrolling in Medicaid, as well as in private plans, is the main reason more kids are uninsured in America, the center, with help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reports.
Nationally, 5 percent of children are uninsured, about 3.9 million, which is up from 3.6 million in 2016. Researchers and child advocacy groups are concerned that after years of improvement the numbers are heading in the wrong direction.
"A third of the kids in the country who are insured have Medicaid — in Utah, fewer than 17 percent have Medicaid," Lukanen told the Deseret News. Expanding Medicaid to more adults, she said, would have a profound impact, especially because parents seeking their own coverage might find out that their kids are eligible.
Regardless, all children and teens in Utah are eligible for some coverage even if their parents are not.
"Parents just don't know about it," she said, adding that parents in more conservative states more frequently elect not to participate in government-funded programs, like the state's Children's Health Insurance Program.
Current federal policies targeting immigrant communities has also caused families not to enroll in Medicaid, or to pull their kids from the program out of fear.
Utah has the highest rate of kids eligible for health insurance, but not enrolled, according to Jessie Mandle, senior health policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children, an advocate for Utah's youngest residents. She said the state also has the highest rate of uninsured Hispanic children.
The State Health Access Data Assistance Center's data shows that in 2017, 15.5 percent of Hispanic kids in Utah were not insured, compared to the national average of 7.8 percent. Also, nearly 15 percent of children in families where parents have low levels of education attainment are uninsured. Nationally, that number hovers around 8 percent.
There was a slight drop in the number of children covered on their parent's plans offered by Utah employers from 2016 to 2017, but those numbers weren't picked up in other ways, the data show.
Voices for Utah Children has launched a campaign to get 100 percent of Utah kids — 30 percent of the state's overall population — insured. It is asking for Utahns to get involved and help spread the word about available coverage options, including Medicaid and CHIP. For more information, visit www.utahchildren.org.
Children who have health insurance, Lukanen said, are more likely to get preventive care, including immunizations; and are less likely to miss school, which means more educational success and better long-term economic outcomes for kids.
"It really is the safety net," she said, adding that medical emergencies can end up ravaging a family's finances, or worse. Having health insurance, even if it is limited coverage, Lukanen said, "is much better than nothing."