Chronically ill children in Utah enrolled in either of the two state insurance programs have access to medical care equal to kids covered through plans at their parents' workplaces, but sick kids who aren't insured generally see a doctor only if their illness becomes an emergency.

That is the finding of a new report released last week by the child-welfare advocacy group the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in an effort to encourage parents to enroll children in available health-insurance programs before they enroll them in the new school year.

About 15,000 children — approximately 19 percent of all kids in the state — with chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes are covered by the state's Children's Health Insurance Program or Medicaid, the joint state/federal insurance program for low-income Utahns.

The report supports survey findings by child advocates in Utah that having health insurance makes an enormous difference in whether kids receive the care they need, especially if they are chronically ill.

Findings by researchers at the University of Minnesota show that insured children are three times more likely to visit a doctor's office in the course of a year than are uninsured children. In addition, insured kids are far more likely to have had a regular or back-to-school checkup to keep them healthy.

It underscores how vital Medicaid and the state Children's Health Insurance Program — called Utah CHIP here — are in keeping kids with chronic illnesses well and out of the hospital.

More than one in three chronically ill children nationwide is enrolled in one of these programs and has consistent access to needed care because of them.

"SCHIP and Medicaid provide an important safety net for America's families, especially for families with chronically ill children," said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "These programs allow kids to get the care they need so that they can feel better, grow stronger and thrive in school."

When children who need care do not receive it, their conditions worsen and are harder and more expensive to treat later, she said.

"Because of Medicaid and SCHIP, millions of kids can get regular checkups, take the medications they need to stay well and see a doctor when they are sick," she added. "Parents of any uninsured child should find out if their family is eligible for low-cost or free insurance before sending their kids back to school."

The report kicks off the foundation's annual Cover the Uninsured Back-to-School Campaign, a nationwide effort to enroll eligible children in public health-coverage programs during the back-to-school season. Findings include:

• 31 percent of all uninsured kids in America did not visit a doctor's office last year, compared to just 9 percent of children with insurance.

• 77 percent of insured children received a "well child" checkup in the past year, compared to 45 percent of those without insurance.

• 10 percent of children in Utah and nationwide with chronic health needs who are enrolled in public programs postpone or skip needed care, compared to 41 percent of uninsured kids who have chronic health needs.

• 7 percent of children enrolled in CHIP or Medicaid in Utah do not have a personal physician, compared to about 21 percent of uninsured kids.

Despite the success of the two public programs across the country, 9 million children nationwide remain uninsured, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. That's more than the total number of kids enrolled in the first and second grades in U.S. public schools.

In Utah, about 70,000 children don't have insurance. Most come from families in which at least one parent works full-time.

Utah lawmakers this past session ensured enough funds that CHIP can remove an enrollment cap that has prevented eligible families from enrolling. That combined with families believing they probably earn too much to enroll has kept the 70,000 or so Utah children who qualify for the plan from signing up. About 35,000 are currently enrolled.

The report meshes with an effort currently under way by CHIP administrators and child advocates to promote the plan statewide.

To find out more about CHIP and qualifications for enrollment, call 877-KIDSNOW or see www.utahchip.org.

To view the foundation report, log on to www.rwjf.org.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com