Report: Utah’s rate of uninsured kids is 6th highest in the nation

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) In this July 15, 2015, file photo, Alexis Herrera, 11, remains tough as he gets an immuzation shot for school at the Junior League CARE Fair in the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City. Utah has the sixth highest rate in the nation for children without health care coverage, a new report says, and the problem has been growing.

In recent years, Utah has experienced a 39% increase in the number of uninsured children and now has among the nation’s highest rates of kids without health coverage, according to a new report.

About 82,000 children in the state — roughly 8.3% of the total — lacked health insurance as of last year, according to the analysis by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. That’s the sixth-highest rate in the United States and stems from the nation’s third-largest jump in uninsured rates for children between 2016 and 2019.

“We are seeing a growing number of Utah’s children going without health coverage,” Jessie Mandle, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, said in a prepared statement. “This damaging trend will have long-term consequences for children and families across Utah because without health coverage, children cannot access the care they need to grow and thrive.”

The percentage of children without health coverage has gone up across the nation in the past few years, rising from 4.7% in 2016 to 5.7% in 2019, the Georgetown University researchers found. That shift is particularly worrying because it came at a time of relatively low unemployment, before COVID-19 delivered a shock to the economy, according to the report.

“For decades, children’s health coverage had been a national success story that we could point to with pride, but the data shows the trend is now going in the wrong direction,” Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said in a prepared statement. “What’s worse, the number of children losing coverage accelerated from 2018 to 2019 during a time when unemployment was very low. The situation is likely worse today.”

The drop in children’s health coverage has largely wiped out the gains made by the Affordable Care Act and could reflect cuts in outreach and enrollment assistance and the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine Obamacare, the report states. The current administration has also created a “hostile climate” toward immigrants, discouraging many mixed-status families from enrolling their eligible children in health coverage, according to the university researchers.

Mandle said in a phone interview that these national attitudes toward immigration have contributed to the number of uninsured children in Utah, along with state level policies that can suppress health coverage rates. Utah does not provide continuous Medicaid enrollment to children, and as a result, kids can fall off their insurance plans if their parents move in and out of eligibility over the course of a year, she explained.

The state could also improve by investing in more robust outreach encouraging families to enroll in health coverage, Mandle said, and could opt to provide insurance to undocumented children who are currently ineligible. Six states and Washington, D.C., cover all children regardless of immigration status, she said.

The urgency of extending coverage to more children is even further heightened during the pandemic, which has almost certainly exacerbated the problem, Mandle added.

“Now, it’s more important than ever that we start to pay attention to the numbers,” she said. “Having a child that’s uninsured right now is even more of a burden on a family because when children are uninsured, families are at greater risk of medical debt.”

Research also shows that insured children are more likely to graduate from school and attend college, according to a news release from Voices for Utah Children.

With expansions in public coverage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the national rate of uninsured children dipped to a historic low in 2016 and bottomed out at 6% in Utah, according to the Georgetown University report. The downward trend began reversing the following year amid a drop-off in Medicaid enrollment, and by 2019, there were 23,000 more kids without health coverage in Utah, the researchers said.

Across the nation, the losses were particularly pronounced among Latino children, who already had some of the nation’s highest uninsured rates, the analysis showed. The nation’s biggest increases in uninsured children happened in Texas and Florida, which together accounted for about 41% of coverage losses during the Trump administration.

Individuals who want more information about health care coverage options can call 211.

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