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Further coverage from Colorado Public News. CPN focuses on uncovering significant information not being reported by anyone else in Colorado.

Drive To Insure Colorado Children Succeeding

Robert D. Tonsing
Colorado Public News
Pediatric nurse practitioner Michele Hinneberg checkes out Mya Castillo, 5, who came in complaining of a sore throat and some ear pain.

A campaign to provide health insurance to children is showing progress in Colorado, where two surveys show the number of uninsured kids is down to 8 to 10 percent.

That’s a drop from the 13 to 14 percent rates of just a few years ago.

The group All Kids Covered estimates that 112,000 to 124,000 children in the state remain without health insurance. The counties with the highest number of uninsured children are Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Routt counties.

The overall rate of people in Colorado without health insurance is 16 to 17 percent.

One major reason for the rising number of children who are covered by health insurance is high unemployment, which is dropping families into lower incomes that qualify them for free or subsidized insurance from the government.

During the past two years, state records show 123,000 Colorado children have qualified for two programs: Medicaid, for families with very low income, and Children’s Health Plan (CHP+), which provides discounted insurance well into the middle class, but only for children. A family with income of $55,000 or less may qualify for discount insurance for their children.

About 18,000 of the uninsured children lack documentation of citizenship status and can’t qualify for the government programs, the group estimated.

Many parents are still working, but they qualify for help anyway.

“They are losing insurance, or insurance is being cut at work,” said Maria Zubia, director of outreach at Community Health Services in Commerce City.

Fourteen state laws have been passed since 2007 expanding health insurance coverage for Colorado children, according to All Kids Covered. Many of them had bipartisan sponsors.

Government and foundation money also has been pouring into outreach work, to sign up children for government insurance if they qualify. The success rate on this varies widely across the state, with an estimated 46 percent of eligible kids not getting subsidized health insurance in Routt County, and 42 percent in Pitkin County. By contrast, the rate of eligible but uninsured children is 9 percent or less in Pueblo and Lake counties.

Pueblo has a nonprofit group, Pueblo StepUp, dedicated to enrolling children in Medicaid and CHP+. Project manager Brenda LaCombe said when parents register their children for school in Pueblo, they can apply for free and subsidized lunches. The free-lunch form asks if they want to hear about subsidized health insurance, and providing StepUp the opportunity to call them. The free-lunch application also gives StepUp information about the family’s finances and whether they might qualify for health insurance.

LaCombe said her group is partly funded by grants – but now also is paid by local hospitals to work with their clients on-site. Penrose-St. Francis in Colorado Springs, St. Mary Corwin in Pueblo and St. Thomas More in Cañon City do this because their patients qualify for federal aid faster, and the hospitals get paid sooner, LaCombe said.

StepUp also works with all kinds of groups, from clinics to the Boys and Girls Clubs, asking them to refer children who need insurance to StepUp. “It doesn’t matter where they go, we’ll get them insured,” LaCombe said.

Pueblo County’s chief of Social Services, Jose Mondragon, also credits his staff for streamlining the process of applying and for “treating folks who walk through our doors as customers rather than wards of our system.” He said he has a complaint coordinator in his office to ensure that problems are fixed.

Ski towns Steamboat Springs and Aspen come up on the opposite end of the list of counties when it comes to signing children up. In Routt County, home of Steamboat Springs, the All Kids Covered survey estimated 46 percent of children who are eligible are not signed up. Diane Miller of the Northwest Visiting Nurse Association said that’s a much lower figure than it used to be. “We feel like there’s been a big improvement.”

Miller said her agency added an outreach staffer in Steamboat Springs three years ago, and that is making a difference. Most effective is “constant presence in the media, which is really expensive,” she said, referring to paid ads in local newspapers.

“A lot of low-income service people” working in the ski towns qualify, but don’t realize it, she said.

The percentage of children eligible for subsidized insurance but not getting it is also high in Aspen. However, there aren’t many children living in Aspen.

“Many workers with families move down the valley to the next county,” said Nan Sundeen, director of county health and human services. “It’s really hard to live in Pitkin County and make a poverty income. We have the highest rate of uninsured people in the state, and that does not make us happy.”

Many adults in Pitkin County are childless, and often in seasonal or part-time jobs. But they face a cost of living two to four times than of the Denver Metro region. In the Roaring Fork Valley, one in four people lacks health insurance in the surrounding a five-county region that includes the heavily tourist areas of Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, Summit and Grand counties.

Keeping children signed up for Medicaid and CHP+ also takes work, said Zubia. People can be dropped by the computer system, and need to be reinstated. The volume of applications is so high that approval is taking longer as well, she said.

To apply for subsidized insurance and other public programs, go to www.colorado.gov/peak.