- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Working parents earning modest incomes find it increasingly difficult to buy health insurance for their children, a new analysis shows.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a study yesterday that shows most uninsured children come from low-income families. In the District, the rate of uninsured children in families that earn low-to-modest incomes is 74 percent, the highest in the country, surpassing the national average of 66 percent.

The group commissioned the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, to develop the state-by-state data.

“The figures underscore that working parents who earn modest incomes are experiencing a dramatic erosion in employee benefits,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourney, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit health care consulting group in New Jersey. “Nationally, fewer than half of parents in families earning less than $40,000 a year are offered health insurance through their employer, a 9 percent drop since 1997.”

Many smaller companies often cannot afford the rising cost of health care, which increased at 7.7 percent last year, double the rate of inflation.

Employers paying for health insurance to parents in families earning $80,000 or more has held steady at close to 80 percent nationally, the study shows.

Congress is debating the amount of federal funding to devote to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is jointly run by the federal government and states. Generally, children in families of four with income levels about $40,000 are considered at the federal poverty level and are eligible for the health insurance program. Last year the program covered 6 million children.

But many states are eager to expand eligibility for the insurance program far beyond the income levels deemed appropriate by the White House. In its budget for fiscal 2008, the Bush administration said it wanted to return the program to its “original objective” of covering children with family incomes less than twice the poverty level. The administration has said that the states should use federal dollars more wisely.

More than a dozen states expect to exhaust their allotments of federal money in the next few months, raising the possibility that children will be removed from the rolls. Georgia, New Jersey and Maryland for example, said they would run out of money before Congress can get more funds to the states. Virginia and the District are not in danger of running out of money in the program.

“The program is a safety net for working families,” said Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. “The governor will be urging the federal government to make available funds to make sure all eligible children can enroll in the program.”

The Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative is pushing for a $1-per-pack increase for cigarettes to help cover the state’s uninsured population, including adults.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, last week announced that the fiscal 2008 House budget will include a reserve fund to cover the cost of enrollment of all eligible children in the program. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, has proposed an additional $50 billion for the program even though the Congressional Budget Office cited the cost of enrolling all eligible children at $32 billion.

The additional funds would be needed to cover more children as the foundation’s analysis shows that nearly 9 million eligible children are now uninsured. States with the highest percentage of uninsured children include Texas at 20 percent, Florida at around 17 percent and New Mexico with 16 percent.

About half of Virginia and Maryland’s uninsured children come from low-income families, putting those states better than the national average.

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