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Many children remain unnecessarily uninsured in Utah

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 5:40 p.m. MDT

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a study Wednesday showing that Utah lags behind the rest of the nation when it comes to enrolling eligible children in public health insurance programs.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Health insurance is available for children in low-income families throughout the nation, but fewer Utah families are taking advantage of it than almost anywhere else.

Utah is one of four states with Children's Health Insurance Program participation rates below 80 percent. Just 73.1 percent of eligible children are enrolled in the Beehive State, according to a report released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

That equates to about 50,000 to 55,000 kids needlessly without insurance, and Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Kolbi Young said the various reasons eligible families aren't enrolling aren't exactly clear.

"We are unable to pinpoint why these kids aren't enrolled," Young said Wednesday.

Enrollment in the taxpayer-funded, state-run insurance program has remained steady in the past year, even plateauing after outreach funding was revoked throughout the recent recession, she said.

That means enrollment teams from within the state's health department haven't been hitting the pavement to enroll more kids since about 2007, and mass media campaigns have been dormant for years as well. Funding to cover those efforts has yet to be restored.

In the meantime, grass roots efforts by CHIP plans, including SelectHealth and Molina, have been reaching out to the public and getting information to families to enroll as many children as are eligible and apply.

Only Nevada has a smaller percentage of eligible children enrolled in the program, at 70 percent. The national average is 87.2 percent, with 19 states having participation rates of 90 percent or higher, according to 2011 data used to compile the report.

Since 2008, CHIP participation rates across the country have increased 5.5 percentage points, with gains each year, showing no evidence of a nationwide enrollment plateau, the foundation reports.

The number of children eligible but uninsured dropped from 4.9 million in 2008 to 4 million in 2011, the latest data available, according to the report, which is an update to a 2012 report by the Urban Institute.

While many states could improve enrollment rates, the future health insurance market remains uncertain, with changes effected by the Affordable Care Act pending. Coverage may be expanded to include more families under the federal legislation, and more may choose to apply for coverage as more attention will be paid to individuals and families without insurance.

State leaders in Utah have yet to make a decision on Medicaid expansion, which would potentially extend eligibility to more families. As new coverage dates approach, Young said Utah families will want to watch out for penalties charged to anyone choosing not to have insurance. Federal legislation that imposes those fees takes effect Jan. 1.

"Having insurance coverage is always a good idea," she said. "Especially with little ones, when emergencies arise, it means having that assurance that you can get their needs met. It gives families peace of mind."

CHIP is a low-cost insurance option for children in low-income families. It is based on a private insurance model with co-pays and premiums levied based on income levels. In Utah, the program for children is open for enrollment throughout the year.

"It has always been our intention to enroll as many children as are eligible that apply," Young said.

Utah families can enroll for the local CHIP program by visiting www.health.utah.gov/chip.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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