State health insurance program for kids quietly succeeds

2012-07-22T00:00:00Z 2012-07-22T12:59:05Z State health insurance program for kids quietly succeedsBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — As the debate rages over national health care reform, a Montana program has slowly and quietly marched toward its own goal: Extending health coverage to thousands of kids without it.

Healthy Montana Kids, which expanded government health insurance for children in low- and moderate-income families, has extended coverage to 21,300 additional kids since its inception almost three years ago — and to more than 27,000 additional kids since voters approved the expansion in November 2008.

21,000 kids

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about the success we’ve had with this program,” said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees Healthy Montana Kids.

“It’s not often that you can say that we have 21,000 kids with health insurance that didn’t have it before.”

Continuing progress

“It’s very encouraging to see more than 21,000 kids who didn’t have health coverage before now have better access to doctors and other providers,” said former state insurance commissioner John Morrison, who led the campaign for the 2008 ballot initiative enacting the program. “I hope that the progress continues so that every child in Montana who needs health coverage has it.”

Montana voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 155 in 2008, directing the state to expand eligibility for two existing government programs funded by the state and the federal government: Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP).

During the campaign, supporters said it would extend coverage to 30,000 children without health insurance.

The coverage is free of charge, although families covered by Healthy Montana Kids (HMK) sometimes must make a small co-payment. The state says total co-payments won’t exceed $215 for a family.

Under the new program, the maximum annual income for families covered by CHIP rose from 175 percent of the federal poverty level to 250 percent, or $57,625 for a family of four.

For Medicaid, eligibility tops out at 133 percent of the federal poverty level, an annual income of $30,660 for a family of four.

While Montana voters approved the expansion, the Legislature still had to approve funding for the program and its administration.

Republicans in the Legislature have grudgingly agreed to fund Healthy Montana Kids, but some still question whether the expansion to cover more middle-income families is truly needed.

State Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, noted that the majority of kids added to the program since its expansion are covered by Medicaid, the program intended for low-income families.

“(The program) was sold and portrayed that there was a tremendous demand for the CHIP program that hadn’t been met,” he said. “It wasn’t anywhere near what was discussed. …

“The point I had made was that there is not that much demand from middle-income families. … (but) I’m glad to see everyone get coverage.”

Of the 21,300 kids added to the program since its official kickoff in October 2009, only about 2,700 are covered by CHIP.

Middle-income families in the program say it’s extraordinarily helpful in tough financial times.

Sami Bergan, a 24-year-old mother in Great Falls, said health insurance for her 2-year-old daughter is too expensive, even though she and her husband both have jobs.

“It would take almost half my monthly paycheck just to have the most minimal coverage,” said Bergan, a secretary for the Great Falls School District. “I can’t even afford it for myself, let alone my daughter.”

Coverage from HMK has enabled the family to take their daughter, Kase, to the doctor when needed, without running up big medical bills, she said.

The state budgeted $177 million for HMK in the current biennium. The federal government covers three-fourths of the cost. State officials estimate that for fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, the program spent about $73 million.

While the Schweitzer administration took some heat in 2009 from program supporters who said the health insurance expansion should be launched more quickly and aggressively, HMK has slowly and steadily increased the number of children covered.

Sorrell said the state has had VISTA volunteers and contracted outreach workers pushing enrollment, engaged more than 700 “enrollment partners,” such as school districts, Indian tribes, physicians and hospitals, and taken steps to make it easier for people to enroll.

For example, starting this April, families already on the program can annually renew without having to reapply. The state asks the family if their income situation is the same, and, if so, they are signed up for another year.

Sorrell, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said she and her staff are especially proud of the state’s outreach to Indian tribes, involving each tribe in the effort to sign up Native American families eligible for coverage.

“We went to them and said, ‘We know these are your children, and it is a state program – How do we partner to get it done?” she said.

About 19 percent of the kids covered by HMK are Native American and the expansion added almost 1,200 Indian children to the program, state officials say.

Program supporters like Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, say they think the state still could do more to carry out the “active” or automatic enrollment written into the ballot measure passed by voters.

Yet she said she’s impressed and gratified by the state effort to carry out the program and make it work.

“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that the department has done such a good job of doing outreach,” Caferro said.

“Montanans have spoken loud and clear that they support health care for children. I just think it’s great.”

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

(25) Comments

  1. linderlu
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    linderlu - July 23, 2012 6:16 pm
    It is interesting that the political party who generally wants to eliminate programs such as this, generally tends toward a position of increasing military spending. I suppose it does boil down to priorities.
  2. linderlu
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    linderlu - July 23, 2012 3:28 pm
    Yes, by all means. A child shouldn't exist because they don't have an extra thousand a month to pay for health insurance on the short term. Did you see where she won't even be using the insurance soon? That's just sad that you'd rather that be the case and would demean someone for wanting their child to have health care during that small gap.
  3. sagebush
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    sagebush - July 23, 2012 11:36 am
    newmama- Hint "birth control".
  4. RightDog
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    RightDog - July 23, 2012 10:05 am
    While examples of “class warfare” and blaming people for being successful (the nerve of them for doing better than others) by the progressively challenged is very apparent …Can you give an example of where the “poor” have been “bashed”?
  5. fishon
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    fishon - July 23, 2012 9:25 am
    I find it very interesting that the far right cry classwarfare from the left while consistantly bashing the poor and vulnerable.
  6. sagebush
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    sagebush - July 23, 2012 7:24 am
    " Ahh, the beggars amass, holding out their trembling hand in anticipation of a few crumbs to feed their wants and expect others to reward them for their lackings".
  7. ne-mt
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    ne-mt - July 22, 2012 8:17 pm
    They are relatives and yes I have voiced my concerns to what they are doing.
  8. T2007
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    T2007 - July 22, 2012 5:15 pm
    Thank you for proving my point.
  9. mercy t
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    mercy t - July 22, 2012 12:42 pm
    you forget these people pay taxes too. only a small percent are from people abusing the system. people abuse EVERY system, i'm sure everyone of you have done something to abuse some sort of entitlement. thank GOD the majority approved this measure, because we know that alot of people aren't as cold hearted as these posts. healthcare for my family of 4 costs us over $1000 a month. plus the deductable and co-pays. both my husband and i work full-time, both of us pay taxes, and support local businesses and organizations. damn strait we'll be applying for this program since we now qualify.
  10. Furhat
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    Furhat - July 22, 2012 12:21 pm
    The total cost of this program is $77 million, 75% paid for by the federal government. That means MT paid less than $20 million for this program for 1 year. For the math-challenged, in a state of 1 million, that is less than $20/Montanan.

    To compare and contrast, each Tomahawk missile costs the taxpayer between $569K and $1.45 million depending on its configuration. Earlier this year we fired hundreds of them into Libya alone. Not a peep was heard from all the self-proclaimed deficit hawks wringing their sweaty hands over the cost of providing health care to American children.

    Often its a simple matter of a society's priorities.
  11. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:21 am
    No. It's not fair. At least it is not fair from our perspective. It's perfectly fine as far as the families riding snowmobiles and 4-wheelers are concerned.
  12. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:19 am
    The same place it is for welfare and on a different shelf but where voter ID (eligibility-testing, a form of means-based testing) is - we mustn't be infringing on these people's rights, you know. We should be happy to be handing our tax dollars over to these people without checking qualifications.
  13. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:16 am
    And don't forget fraud - all we hear about are the ones that got caught. Responsibility is no longer at the top of the list. We are expected to pay for insurance for our kids AND everyone else's. In the same boat as homes bought by dollars loaned to people who were unable to pay the mortgage. You are exactly right. But you will get to listen to all those who actually believe that taxpayers should pay for their stuff, too. It's not coming - it's already here.
  14. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:12 am
    Oh, that's politically incorrect.
  15. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:11 am
    Selfish? It IS all about money - someone has to pay for it. No money, no program. Do unto others? That's part of the problem. Right at half the people in this country are expecting others to pay for their kids, their groceries, their whatever. Quite the Golden Rule they have going, I'd say.
  16. mtwordwrangler
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    mtwordwrangler - July 22, 2012 11:08 am
    So what exactly is the fair share of taxes for the so-called wealthy? And what is the fair share of raising a child for the not-so-wealthy? Where does the responsibility for someone's kids lie?

  17. newmama
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    newmama - July 22, 2012 10:13 am
    My kids are on HMK and it is the most amazing program MT has. I could not be more grateful. I worked for Wells Fargo for 4 years and had United Healthcare and HMK's blue cross blue shield is just as good. when i left my job after having another baby to stay at home, my husbands insurance was breaking us. The customer service during the enrollment process was great and it has gotten us through a very tough time. my husband starts a new job soon and we will no longer qualify, so I would say the system works. we are hard working taxpayers that are very satisfied with this program. Thank you Montana voters!
  18. newmama
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    newmama - July 22, 2012 10:07 am
    My kids are on HMK
  19. T2007
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    T2007 - July 22, 2012 9:26 am
    Ah yes. It's to be expected anymore that the first comments about this story has to be about me, myself and I. What a bunch of selfish people we are nowadays. Instead of thinking "Great these kids are covered and the safety net is working", it's what about ME? It's not all about you and your money. Kids are suffering through circumstances not of their making and people complain. Whatever happened to the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?" Does that not apply when it comes to money/taxes?
  20. Skinwalker
    Report Abuse
    Skinwalker - July 22, 2012 9:15 am
    Individual health insurance costs a lot more than a snow mobile. Without the group benefits of health insurance through work, most cannot even get health insurance due to pre-existing conditions. I know you think health care for all U.S. citizens is a bad idea and you do not care if kids die from lack of basic health care. What I did not see in your rant is a solution.
  21. Skinwalker
    Report Abuse
    Skinwalker - July 22, 2012 9:12 am
    You are correct health care for all U.S. citizens is a horrible idea. Better to let the children die of preventable diseases than ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes. I know, I know - your solution is "If you get sick, die quickly".
  22. Jamey
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    Jamey - July 22, 2012 8:18 am
    ne-mt - how do you know they are on CHIP?
  23. Juan
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    Juan - July 22, 2012 7:07 am
    Where is evidence they were not insured before or they did not get healthcare? What happened to means based testing?
  24. 2012
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    2012 - July 22, 2012 6:44 am
    Pretty soon all kids will be on this, then they will raise it up to 26 yr old children, then it will be everybody. Oh, that's right, Obamacare has already done that. As usual with an entitlement, it grows till the taxpayer can no longer afford it and it takes the majority of the annual budget, like medicaid, medicare, Social Security, VA healthcare, Indian health services, and Obamacare. Coming to a state near you.
  25. ne-mt
    Report Abuse
    ne-mt - July 22, 2012 6:40 am
    I know of families that are on the CHIP program that have new snowmobilies and fourwheelers and haul them to different areas across the state to ride them. Now is that fair to the people that pay for their own insurance that cannot afford these kind of toys. Maybe there needs to be a better report to the assets that a family has to qualify for for this program or a first hand unannounced visit to the home.

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