Gazette opinion: Healthy initiative provides kids safety net in recession

2010-10-24T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Healthy initiative provides kids safety net in recessionGazette staff The Billings Gazette
October 24, 2010 12:10 am  • 

Montana voters helped insure the state’s children against some of the worst effects of the Great Recession. As a result, while health care costs and unemployment rates have risen, the number of children covered by state health programs has increased.

 Two years ago, 70 percent of Montana voters approved expanded state health coverage for children with a goal of covering virtually all otherwise uninsured Montana kids, directing that 33 percent of insurance taxes collected annually by the state be diverted to expanding children’s health coverage.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services set “a lofty goal of getting 100,000” kids covered, director Anna Whiting Sorrell said in a recent interview. “We put our best goal out there that we could. It was more difficult than we anticipated.”

Months after Healthy Montana Kids won the popular vote, the 2009 Legislature cut its expansion funding (from insurance taxes) in half for four years and decided that it would start with 24 new employees and 12 temps, instead of the 60 requested by the health department.

“We’ve been able to live within that,” Sorrell said of the HMK appropriation. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Healthy Montana Kids provided $269.2 million in services to children through Medicaid and CHIP. Only $59.5 million of that total came from state-generated revenue, including $9 million in insurance taxes. The federal government reimbursed Montana for the rest.

Meanwhile, the recession put unprecedented pressure on public assistance workers statewide because the same offices responsible for launching Healthy Montana Kids also work with people needing food aid, adult Medicaid and other programs.

10,000 children added

Despite those changes and challenges, nearly 80,000 Montana children were covered by the program recently — 10,000 more than when Healthy Montana Kids started in October 2009.

Some of those children (ages birth to 18) are covered because the Healthy Montana Kids initiative expanded coverage to middle income families. Some of the 10,000 are in families that would have qualified previously, but decided to seek help in the past year as the health department publicized the program.

Yellowstone County has added about 140 children a month to the program for the past year while statewide enrollment has increase by an average of 930 kids monthly. As of this summer, 9,806 Yellowstone County children were in the program. That’s nearly as many children as the total K-8 enrollment of Billings Public Schools. Of course, many of those enrollees are infants and preschoolers.

At the point that Healthy Montana Kids started last fall, the number of uninsured Montana children was decreasing while the overall number of uninsured Montanans was static, according to Gregg Davis, director of health care research at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. According to the American Community Survey conducted in 2009 by the U.S. Census Bureau, 13 percent of Montanans under age 18 were uninsured in 2009, compared with 15 percent in 2008. This survey counts people as uninsured if they were uninsured at the time they answered the survey.

These statistics don’t reflect the Healthy Montana Kids program that launched in October 2009. Data that shows what impact HMK and the recession had on 2010 health coverage hasn’t yet been collected and analyzed. However, the fact that the program added 10,000 children in a year is significant. Changes are coming early next year that should make the HMK enrollment faster and serve more Montana kids.

Community partners

In addition to running mass media campaigns, the department has been spreading the word on HMK using trained “community partners” who offer information to parents and assist them in filling out the application. About 600 people have been trained statewide. This small army could be the key to getting kids covered. In Billings, the dozens of trained partners include staff members at RiverStone Health, Young Families, Head Start, Youth Dynamics, Family Tree Center, Indian Health Board of Billings, Parents Let’s Unite for Kids, Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and School District 2.

DPHHS has worked hard to make children’s health coverage “seamless” to parents and the public. There’s one application for Healthy Montana Kids; the department figures out whether the child is eligible and enrolls him in the appropriate program: Medicaid for lower income families, CHIP for middle income families. CHIP kids generally have been in working families that didn’t have or couldn’t afford insurance for their children.

“We think the best thing we can do to keep Healthy Montana Kids going is to run a really good program,” Sorrell said. “If you think you might be eligible, apply and let us figure it out.”

Montana children need the safety net that Healthy Montana Kids provides, especially in these tough financial times. The program still has a way to go to cover all uninsured kids, but it has managed to provide care to more kids whose families otherwise couldn’t afford care. If your children or grandchildren don’t have health insurance, check the box at left to see how to apply for this no cost/low cost coverage. It costs nothing to apply.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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