New York Times

December 4, 2005

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 3 - The number of American children without health care coverage has been slowly but steadily declining over the past several years even as health care costs continue to rise and fewer employers provide insurance, creating a breach that states have stepped in to fill with new programs and fresh money.
The overall ranks of the uninsured continue to swell, to nearly 46 million Americans at the beginning of this year. But a landmark federal program begun in 1997 to provide health coverage to poor and working-class children and additional measures taken by states have provided health insurance to millions of children who might otherwise go without.

In the past year, 20 states have taken steps to increase access to health coverage for children and their parents and nine states have reversed actions they took during the 2001-3 economic downturn to limit benefits, according to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, part of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks health care trends. Among them are Illinois, which just signed a child health bill, and Vermont, with its "Dr. Dynasaur" health program, both of which broadened coverage for children.

As a result of these and other steps, there are 350,000 fewer uninsured children in the United States than there were in 2000, the foundation reported. Over the same period, the overall number of uninsured rose by six million.

While elected officials cannot agree on how to provide or pay for health coverage for uninsured adults, there seems to be a consensus in many states that covering children is medically wise and politically smart.

However, even the situation for children is not uniformly favorable. Eleven states facing political and financial pressure, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, made it more difficult for eligible children to retain coverage.

The movement to expand coverage for children dates to the mid-1990's, after the Clinton administration devised a complex plan to provide all Americans with health care coverage. That plan failed, and advocates of wider coverage began pursuing more incremental changes at the federal level and lobbying legislatures to expand coverage.

Alan R. Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, a nonpartisan research group, said children's health was one area of state spending that had consistently risen. Mr. Weil said it was much easier for officials to approve spending "for the kids" than to expand welfare programs for adults, even in times of hardship.

"It goes back to the Elizabethan poor laws that drew a conceptual distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor," he said. "It's very hard to call kids undeserving, even if you don't like the parents' behavior."

Illinois took the most far-reaching step this fall, enacting a law intended to provide coverage to all children in the state, extending low-cost or free coverage to the 250,000 Illinois youngsters who are now uninsured.

But even states unwilling to go as far as Illinois are moving to provide insurance for children.

New Jersey, which imposed sharp restrictions on publicly financed health care for families during the economic slowdown, restored eligibility this year to some 75,000 low-income families.

In Washington State, where 39,000 children were dropped from state-financed health care programs in 2003 and 2004, officials reversed course this year. The state eased health care eligibility requirements for families with children and delayed a plan to charge premiums.

And Texas, which has one of the nation's highest rates of uninsured children, took steps this year to stop a decline in the number of children with health coverage. The state eliminated premiums for the poorest families enrolled in state health care programs and stopped cutting off families with higher incomes that failed to keep up with premiums.

As of the beginning of this year, 16 percent of all Americans lacked health insurance, but only 12 percent of children under 18 went uncovered, although that still amounts to nine million children, according to the Kaiser commission. That gap has been widening over the years as fewer employers offer health care coverage, federal spending fails to keep pace with rising costs, and states limit eligibility to balance budgets.

The picture is brighter for children than for adults in large part because of the enactment of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or Schip, in 1997. The program provides federal money for child health care to states, which determine eligibility, income limits and covered benefits within federal guidelines. The number of children covered under the federal-state program grew rapidly, from 897,000 children nationwide in 1998 to 3.95 million in the middle of 2003, before leveling off.

The percentage of uninsured children ranges from less than 5 percent in Vermont to almost 20 percent in Texas. The differences reflect state policies, the poverty rate, the number of immigrants, and the percentage of children covered by employers and other programs.

The chief factor determining how many children are covered is the income eligibility level set by the states under Schip. The federal government requires coverage for families at or below the federal poverty level, about $20,000 for a family of four. Only a few states set the limit that low. In some states, including Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont, families with incomes at 250 percent or even 300 percent of the federal poverty line qualify.

California is witnessing a battle that is also playing out in Washington and other states. State officials here and private groups are trying to bring health coverage to more than a million California children who now go without it. A bill that passed the Legislature this year would have eased eligibility requirements for the poorest families, bringing coverage to hundreds of thousands of children. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed the bill, saying that he agreed with its aims but that the sponsors had not come up with a way to pay for it.

Partly in reaction, a coalition of health groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association are proposing a ballot initiative to raise the state cigarette tax to finance universal health care for children. Sponsors say that the estimated $1.4 billion raised by the new tax would pay for health coverage for more than 800,000 California children.

Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of its children who are insured through state and federal programs and private insurance, with almost 95 percent coverage.

In 1989, Madeleine M. Kunin, then the governor, created a state-financed program for pregnant women and for children up to age 6 who did not have private insurance and did not qualify for Medicaid. The program, which came to be known as Dr. Dynasaur, was expanded in 1992 under Gov. Howard Dean to cover children through age 17. Families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or nearly $60,000 a year, qualify, and the program covers doctor visits, dental care, immunizations, vision care, medicines and mental health.

Financing comes from the federal government, tobacco taxes and general state revenues.

Despite the fading fortunes of the auto industry, 93 percent of Michigan children are covered, several percentage points higher than the national average. But that still leaves 200,000 Michigan youngsters uninsured.

Even though Ms. Granholm intends to ask for significant cuts in some state programs in her budget next month, she said she would propose increasing spending to address the problem of uninsured children.

"Let's get real about it," Ms. Granholm said. "Let's design a public system that truly reflects where we want to be, so states are not twisted into pretzels to try to insure their most vulnerable citizens. I don't think we want to be a nation where you go to Dunkin' Donuts to put a quarter in a jar for Aunt Linda's mastectomy. We need a national solution for competitiveness and moral reasons. And Washington is utterly silent."

Bullet Points for Legislators

  • Single Payer saves money.  For the past 20 years, states have commissioned studies on different types of health care systems.   In EVERY case, single payer was shown to be the only way to cover everyone and the only system that saved money and controlled costs.

  • Publicly financed does not mean government run health care.  YOU have publicly finance health coverage, but the government does not make decisions regarding your health care.

  • Cost conscious patients often don't get the care they need.   Most decisions are made by the doctor in concert with the patient, but the patient relies on the doctor's knowledge to make a decision.  Expensive tests and treatments cannot be ordered by the patient, only the doctor.

  • Lifestyle choices are not what is fueling high costs in health care.   The United States ranks low in general health indicators, but high in good health habits.  We smoke less, drink less and consume less animal fat that many other countries with better health indicators and much lower health care costs.

  • Businesses can accurately determine their health care costs and are not subject to unanticipated large premium increases.

  • It will reduce labor costs due to a more efficient way of financing health care, eliminating much wasteful administration.

  • Workers' Compensation costs will be reduced, likely by half, due to the fact that everyone has health coverage and there is no need for the medical portion.

  • It reduces the need for part time employees and provides easier recruiting.  There are no pre-existing conditions or Cobra issues.

  • Eliminates the oversight of health benefits and bargaining health coverage with employees.

  • It creates healthier personnel and more stable employees, reduces absenteeism and eliminates employer health coverage complaints.

  • It reduces employee health related debt and personal bankruptcies.

  • It frees up family income that can be spent on other goods and services, thus stimulating the economy.

Tips for Writing Letters to Editor

Follow guidelines for your local paper (word count, submission instructions, etc.)

Frame your letter in relation to a recent news item Use state specific data whenever possible (let us know if you need help finding some!)

Address counter arguments

Be aware of your audience and emphasize how Medicare for All is good for ALL residents of the state

Criticize other positions, not people Include your credentials (especially if you work in the healthcare field)

Avoid jargon and abbreviations

Don’t overload on statistics and minor details

Cover only one or two points in a single letter

Avoid rambling and vagueness


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