BOISE – While the number of Americans without health insurance has been rising for the past decade, the picture is different in Idaho and Washington, where the percentage who lack insurance has stayed roughly the same – except when it comes to children.
Far more of Idaho’s children were covered by health insurance in 2008 than in 1999, according to the latest U.S. census data, with the percentage of uninsured kids dropping to 8.9 percent last year from 19.8 percent in 1999. Washington, too, saw improvement over the same period, with the percentage of uninsured children dropping to 6.8 in 2008 from 10.3 in 1999.
“Government programs really saved the day for children – that’s really about the one difference,” said Harriet Shaklee, a University of Idaho professor and extension family development specialist. “There is a program specifically for children, and there are private funds specifically for promoting that.”
The Children’s Health Insurance Program, a joint federal-state program in which the federal government pays 80 percent of the cost and the states 20 percent, started in 1997 to insure kids whose parents made too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance. Medicaid is the government health insurance program for the poor or disabled.
However, it wasn’t just CHIP that made the big difference – it was a private foundation’s promotion of the new government program.
“Back in 2001 and 2002, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided just a lot of outreach, in the form of television and radio commercials and such,” said Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “And basically what we saw was just a huge increase in children.”
Many of those who responded to the promotions didn’t qualify for CHIP – they qualified for regular Medicaid.
“For every four calls we got about CHIP, three of the people actually got in Medicaid because their incomes were lower,” Shanahan said. “So we saw a huge increase, mostly in regular Medicaid, that’s mostly all children.”
Children are among the least costly populations to insure; Shanahan said about 70 percent of Idaho’s Medicaid clients are children, and they account for less than 40 percent of the program’s costs.
The U.S. census data, which comes from the annual Current Population Survey, shows that if children were taken out of the equation, both Idaho’s and Washington’s rate of uninsured residents under age 65 stayed about the same from 1999 to 2008. In Idaho, it was about 21 percent. In Washington, it was about 16 percent.
Nationally, the percentage of Americans age 18 to 64 with no health insurance rose steadily through the decade, from 17.2 percent to 20.3 percent. Among Americans over age 65, more than 98 percent have health insurance coverage, nearly all through Medicare, the national program that covers the elderly.
While Washington scores well above the national average for rates of health insurance coverage across its population, Idaho falls well below.
This year, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a huge survey of Americans, asked about health insurance coverage for the first time; Idaho came out 12th worst in the nation, with 17.8 percent uninsured, while Washington was in the middle of states, with 13.1 percent uninsured. The nationwide rate in that survey was 15.1 percent.