Thousands of previously uninsured children in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties could soon be helped by a state Senate bill passed by the Legislature on Aug. 18.
Senate Bill 1431, which was introduced by state Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, might also help replace funding for a crucial state children's insurance program facing the chopping block.
The legislation, which passed unanimously in both houses, would raise the eligibility limit, currently capped at 300 percent, to 400 percent, matching federal law. It would loosen millions of federal dollars for childrens' insurance programs with no additional cost to the state, Simitian said. The bill awaits signing by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"During tough times, families of modest means are especially hard hit, particularly those with kids. There is federal money on the table to give those at-risk kids the health insurance they need. And this bill gives participating counties a green light to access those funds. On a statewide basis, we can access millions of federal dollars and help thousands of kids," he said.
The federal government currently contributes approximately two dollars for every dollar California spends insuring at-risk children through the Healthy Families program, California's children's health insurance program. Healthy Families potentially faces dismantling as the governor and legislature seek to balance the $18.6 billion state budget deficit.
If budget constraints force cuts to Healthy Families, counties would be able to use their qualified health programs to cover those children and keep the federal matching funds for providing that care, Simitian said. Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and San Francisco currently have additional health care programs that provide a safety net to help low-income families who do not qualify for the federal or state programs.
In Santa Clara County, 71,000 children lacked health insurance prior to 2001. The county created the Healthy Kids insurance program – the first health insurance program by a county or city in the nation – using settlement monies from a tobacco lawsuit.
The program became part of the Children's Health Initiative, which focuses on outreach and education to get kids enrolled in state and federal programs, including Medi-Cal and Healthy Families. Today, 80 to 90 percent of uninsured children are enrolled in one of the three programs, according to Joy Alexiou, spokeswoman for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Simitian's bill would cover an additional 1,000 children in Santa Clara County, she said.
In San Mateo County, which sponsored the bill, county health programs insure 5,400 children who don't qualify for federal or state programs, according to Jean Fraser, San Mateo County Health System Chief.
"This bill would enable communities like ours to sustain health coverage for children and leverage all available federal resources during a time of significant financial strain for families, the state and local governments," she said.
Simitian's bill is "a benefit to the whole community" because some information indicates that children who receive medical attention or preventive care and remain healthy stay in school, according to Alexiou. "There is less absenteeism. They do better in society."
Access to children's health insurance and health care are important determinants of better health and readiness to learn, according to the Institute for Health Policy Solutions. Regular access to health care can decrease costs to communities by lowering the need for emergency and specialized services.
May View Community Health Center in Palo Alto and Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto see the impact of the economic downturn on health coverage, officials said.
As the sole nonprofit, federally qualified community health center in San Mateo County, Ravenswood provides care to hundreds of children covered by the Healthy Families program. More than 4 million children in California currently covered by Medi-Cal and Healthy Families rely on those programs, Luisa Buada, chief executive officer, said.
"With so many people losing employee coverage and more and more families turning to community health centers for care, (Ravenswood) faces the ever more difficult challenge of fundraising for uncompensated care for non-reimbursable visits," Buada said.
The impacts of health insurance coverage affect private hospitals as well. More than 40 percent of children seen at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital receive insurance through Healthy Kids, Healthy Families or Medi-Cal, according to Sherri Sager, chief government relations officer for Packard Hospital.
Simitian's bill goes a long way in insuring that all kids will have access to health care insurance, according to Sager. Current funding isn't enough to cover all of the children with needs. "We're putting them on waiting lists," she said.