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There has to be a way to continue insuring children

Submitted by on Monday, 17 November 2008 No Comment

A flier in Big Guy’s backpack when he came home from school this afternoon asks, “Does your child have health insurance?”

It includes basic information about California’s Health Families program, which insures children whose parents make too much to be eligible for Medi-Cal but not enough to afford private insurance. Families of four can earn up to $48,4384 a year and still be eligible for the $45-a-month plan.

Hope nobody’s hopes soar too high based on the leaflets, because Healthy Families isn’t feeling well. The disease is not incurable, particularly when there’s a $3 billion shot of budgetary wonder drug just sitting there waiting for someone to use it. For now, though, things aren’t looking so good.

According to a story last week in The Sacramento Bee, Healthy Families is considering limits on new enrollment for the first time in its 10-year existence. Buried under the weight of its own success — and a struggling economy — the program has averaged more than 27,000 new subscribers a month for the past year and already is facing a $17.2 million deficit.

Its executive director told The Bee that failing to limit new enrollment could force officials to stop covering children already in the program.

At a time when steadily increasing unemployment will throw more and more families into the “uninsured category,” those folks soon will be eligible for Medi-Cal. Which, in turn, will face a Healthy Families-type budget problem.

That alone is reason enough to do everything possible to preserve Healthy Families.

Most parents realize that $45 is nothing compared to what they’d pay for even employer-based coverage for a family of four. And I bet many would stretch their budgets to pay that paltry amount rather than go on Medi-Cal. Absent room in Healthy Families, many won’t have that choice.

The financial impact extends far beyond Medi-Cal, too, in case you can’t buy into preserving Healthy Families for humanitarian reasons.

Hospitals already are seeing drops in paying patients due to the economic downturn, which in turn hurts their ability to cover charity care and unpaid bills. Next up will be a flood of visits for expensive emergency room care, the last refuges for the poor because hospitals are obligated to treat them.

See how the whole thing starts to collapse?

I realize budget times are tough for governments everywhere, California certainly included. The state’s facing hard choices about a deficit that could approach $28 billion in the next year and a half, according to another Bee article.

I also realize that the health-care crisis is not California’s alone to solve. I seem to say this weekly now, but the issue has to be a priority for the Obama administration.

The California Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board, which oversees Healthy Families, can’t continue hold the line on its own. It will meet Wednesday to consider the wait list and, barring a cash infusion, officials say they won’t have a choice but to impose limits.

They do have a choice on the timing, though. They can wait another month to give officials in Sacramento a chance to come up with solutions.

There’s talk about sending unused tobacco tax money to Healthy Families, and that makes a lot of sense. Votes approved the tax in 2005 with the idea that the money would help children, and Healthy Families certainly fits that description.

That $2 billion sitting around in tobacco tax reserves would cover a lot of families for a long time. Even the $3 million spent on public service announcements touting preschool would be a decent start.

It’s worth taking a serious look at before pulling the plug on a needed safety net.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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