Stateline Story

Nine Million Kids Still Uninsured

Illinois resident Kendall Watters was eight years old when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His family didn't have insurance, so his mother Nora did what any Mom would do. She desperately tried to find someone, anyone who could help her son.

"When I found out he had a brain tumor, I called information and got the phone number for every children's hospital in the United States, for any hospital that had anything to do with tumors or brain conditions. I called everybody in this world I could think of to try to get help," says Nora Watters.

Most of the hospitals Watters reached told her if she didn't have insurance, they couldn't even talk to her. A man at St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri told Watters they could help her son, but she first needed to apply for something called Kid Care. Watters applied for the program in her home state and got a letter that said Kendall would be okayed for health insurance. He started getting the care he needed at the Missouri hospital.

KidCare is the name of the Illinois version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), part of a $24 billion five-year federal-state effort launched in 1997. Despite the best efforts of foundations and state programs, many health officials are worried that budget concerns will put a stop to getting more kids signed up for the program. Idaho, for instance, has stopped aggressively promoting health programs that legislators say have grown too costly.

More than 3 million kids in the U.S. are now enrolled in SCHIP. Another 18 to 20 million children get health coverage under Medicaid, a long-standing program that offers medical help to low-income individuals and families.

The numbers sound pretty high, but nine million kids are still without insurance, say officials from Covering Kids , a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative aimed at making sure every child in the country has medical care.

Kids that don't have health insurance are more likely to get sick and won't do as well in school as their insurance-armed classmates--important points for parents and educators to think about as children head back to the classroom this fall. A recent survey of more than 1,600 families also found:

  • One in five parents of children without health insurance was forced to delay or skip needed medical care for their child during the past year.
  • Fourteen percent of parents of uninsured kids delayed filling or did not get a prescription for their sick child because they didn't know how they would pay for it.
  • More than one in four parents of uninsured children were forced to delay or skip needed dental care because of financial concerns.
  • One in five parents of uninsured kids ages 5 to 18 has kept or would keep their children out of a sporting event because of fear they might get injured and have no way of being covered.

Officials of Covering Kids hope to wipe out those statistics and educate parents about the availability of insurance programs. Five out of ten parents of kids who are SCHIP-eligible still don't know the program exists. For starters, the group recently unveiled a Back-to-School campaign that boasts of 1,000 events taking place this month and next. Nebraska will reach out to families through health fairs, public service announcements and radio commercials. Montana plans to educate teachers about SCHIP so they can identify kids who might qualify. The state will also include program information with applications for school lunch programs. In Florida, a Miami school uniform store will hand out 30,000 brochures at six different locations. Arkansas plans to teach school nurses how to sign up kids for SCHIP and will include program details on more than 80,000 water bills sent out to residents.

States have welcomed the Covering Kids' campaign and hefty donations from Robert Wood Johnson ($47 million so far, another $55 million four-year effort called Covering Kids & Families will kick off in January). "I'm tired of people talking and not doing anything," says New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Antonia Novello. "I get concerned when I learn we still have nine million children uninsured in the United States. In a place of such abundance, the situation can no longer be tolerated," she says.

For Nora Watters, just seeing her now-healthy son Kendall happy and pursuing his love of tap and jazz dancing, is incentive enough to promote the program everytime she gets the chance.

"I tell everybody I know about Kid Care, everybody that I think needs the help. When my child gets sick, he can go see a doctor. We don't have to go to the emergency room (as the only option) and get treated badly 'cause they know we don't have the insurance to pay the bills," she says.