Deseret Morning News graphic

One in nine children in the United States has no health insurance, even as the majority of the uninsured children live in two-parent households where both parents work outside the home, according to a new report.

In Utah, the numbers are slightly higher than the national average. For example, 91.4 percent of the state's 88,458 uninsured children have at least one working parent, compared with 88.3 percent nationally, according to the Thursday report written by Families USA.

"Increasingly, this problem we're seeing with lower-income working parents where people can't afford to cover their kids, that's going to be the name of the game," said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, which co-released the study in Utah with the Campaign for Children's Health Care, a national coalition dedicated to making sure all children have affordable health insurance.

After two years without health insurance for her three children, one Utah mother said her health care coverage is a matter of prayer.

"We just pray that they don't get too sick and have to end up in the hospital," said Trina, who asked not to be identified by her last name. "We just pray to God that that doesn't happen."

Trina and her husband both work full time for small businesses that do not offer health insurance, leaving them to pay out-of-pocket costs for all medical costs for their children, ages 5, 8 and 13. Still, the West Valley couple's incomes are too high for them to qualify for government-sponsored health insurance programs.

"We're stuck between a rock and hard place," she said.

Uninsured children, says Thursday's report, have less contact with doctors, are less likely to have a usual source of medical care and are five times more likely than insured children to have unmet medical, dental and vision needs.

In Salt Lake City pediatrician Tom Metcalf's experience, children without insurance receive little to no preventive care, leaving their parents to seek more expensive medical care for more serious conditions.

"Even in the best companies that try to insure their people, the premiums are just too high," said Metcalf, a Utah Health Policy Project board member. "Those are the kids that I see infrequently, and many never, because they simply do not have insurance to come in except for crisis care."

Thursday's study comes as a working group on the uninsured, created by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., is exploring ways to mandate health insurance coverage for all Utah children. The plan is still in its formative stages, but Metcalf thinks it has promise.

"That task force is working to cover these kids, which is just wonderful," he said. "Pediatricians and parents are going to be very, very happy."

Nearly 70 percent of the nation's 9 million uninsured children, including those in Utah, are eligible for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program. For that reason, according to the report, states should do what they can to fund and promote the government-sponsored programs.

"Of all the different groups of people served by these programs, children are the least expensive to cover, and they stand to gain a tremendous amount from obtaining health coverage," the report states.

Until more systemic solutions are found, Medicaid and CHIP remain the best options for Utah parents to insure their children, Hilman said. Unfortunately, she said, open enrollment for Utah's CHIP, which covers about 36,000 children, closed Sept. 1.

"It's a no-brainer that we've got to put more money into our CHIP program for now," she said. "But that still doesn't get us to the underlying reason of folks needing CHIP."

The Utah Health Policy Project is pushing legislation that would allow small businesses to buy into the state's Public Employees Health Plan, which provides health insurance coverage to 180,000 people, mostly state employees and county, city and school district workers. The group believes the move, which legislators rejected earlier this year, would give small-business owners an affordable option for health insurance for their employers.

"You've got lower-income working parents falling off of insurance because they can't afford the premium," Hilman said. "We're trying to get underneath the problem."

E-mail: [email protected]