Legislation on Utah’s Capitol Hill aims at closing health insurance gap for kids

Utah is worst in the nation for insuring Latino children.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) This July 2017 file photo shows mothers with their children waiting in line to get immunization shots at the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City. Advocates say Utah is in its 30th year of having the highest percentage of uninsured Latino kids in the nation. Some bills in the Legislature aim to boost coverage for all children.

Community leaders, families and some Utah lawmakers are speaking out in support of two bills aimed at making health insurance more accessible to all Utah children.

Utah currently has one of the highest rates of uninsured children, with about 87,000 kids who aren’t covered. Organizations like the Utah Health Policy Project have been concerned about the continuously rising uninsured rate, particularly among Hispanic children. 2018 marked the 30th year row in which Utah had the highest rate of uninsured Latino children in the nation, at 90%.

SB158, sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, would ensure that all Utah children whose family income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level would get access to Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), depending on their income bracket.

“We are a state that deeply cares for kids,” Escamilla said. “If we deeply care for families and kids, we need to cover them all. No kid should be left behind, especially if they meet the criteria based on income.”

Another bill, HB262, sponsored by Doug Welton, R-Payson, would connect Utah children with health insurance programs and create a children’s health insurance outreach fund.

Welton was shocked to discover how few Utah families take advantage of health care programs that already exist. “We’re trying to figure out why [families] are not able to connect and get involved with these programs,” Welton said. “Is it a language issue? A paperwork issue?”

Currently, there are multiple barriers Utah families face when applying for children’s health insurance, even if they are deemed eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.

“We have helped families who have unknowingly lost their children’s Medicaid coverage,” Teresa Sanchez, with Take Care Utah and Utah Health Policy Project, said. “There is low to no availability to provide translators at all levels of the Medicaid application process.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only had a disproportionate impact on multicultural communities in Utah but has also amplified existing barriers such as sustainable housing, lack of language assistance, loss of income, food insecurity and access to healthcare, Sanchez said.

The People’s Health Clinic has seen an increase in more than 20% of their patient load due to newly unemployed families the past year. Most children are covered under their parents’ insurance, which is provided to them through their employer. Without those jobs, a vast number of children are going without insurance.

According to Miriam Garcia, with Holy Cross Ministries, many families are hesitant to take their children into instant care because they’re afraid of the thousands of dollars they would have to pay and the extra hours they would have to work to be able to pay the bills.

“What the pandemic has made very clear to us is that the disparity among our families in this state is vast. We are leaving so many children behind based solely on their inability to fill out a form,” Beth Armstrong, executive director of the People’s Health Clinic, said. “These two bills are an excellent step in providing the ability to reach out and let [families] know what’s available to them and provide them assistance in getting that coverage.”

If SB158 is passed, Utah children would be able to qualify for health insurance if they simply meet the income criteria. The bill’s fiscal note would be $5.2 million, but Escamilla says the investment is “worthwhile” for the future of Utah children.

“When children have uninterrupted access to health care, they perform better in school, are more likely to become active members in the workforce as adults and are less likely to have chronic conditions that go untreated,” Jack Schwiebert, professional mentor at Friends of the Children Utah, said.

Jessie Mandle, senior policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children, said adopting these policies would move Utah from being “among the worst in the nation when it comes to insurance to among the best.”