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Ravell Call, KSL, File

Utah organization sets goal of 100% health coverage for children regardless of immigration status

By Christina Giardinelli, KSL | Posted - May 25th, 2019 @ 7:18pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Every day Wendy gets an email from her son’s teacher letting her know how his behavior was that day. The 7-year-old, the youngest of her three sons, has ADHD, which she says has a severe impact on his ability to learn.

“I’ve gotten emails about how he was not able to learn today or his behavior was bad today. Almost every week for the past two or three weeks it’s been complicated for him in class and for his teacher,” she said, speaking in Spanish during a phone interview. She requested that her full name not be published due to fear of deportation.

“Honestly it’s really difficult for me to cover the therapy that he should have every week because I have to pay for it out-of-pocket,” she said, noting that generally she is only able to pay for therapy twice a month.

Wendy's story echoes that of the 71,000 children who are uninsured in the state of Utah, according to a recent nationwide study by the State Health Access Data Assistance Center. The national average of uninsured children is 5 percent, which amounts to about 3.9 million children. In Utah that average is higher, it was 6 percent in 2016 and went up a percentage point in 2017, the data shows.

Wendy said this month has been particularly difficult because she was only able to pay for one visit. The rain, she said, has influenced her husband's paycheck this month because he works in construction.

Because of her husband's income, Wendy and her family were not able to qualify for Medicaid and have been forced to fall back on coverage provided through his work, but the high deductible has made access to care inaccessible

In addition to the out-of-pocket cost of her son's therapies ($75 per visit), Wendy and her husband are still paying for their son's emergency hospital visit from a year ago. At the time they were uninsured and the visit cost them $6,500.

"They take $200 from (her husband's) paycheck every month" she said.

According to the latest census data, Utah's Latino community represents a large portion of that percentage. While the Latino population accounts for only 14 percent of Utah's population, 43 percent of uninsured children in the state are of Latino ethnicity, the study noted.

Uninsured children in Utah by race/ethnicity (Photo: Joseph Tolman)

Voices for Utah Children hopes to reverse the uptick in the state's uninsured children through 100% Kids Coverage, a campaign launched Friday.

The initiative comprises a coalition of over 20 stakeholder organizations and focuses on four main policy areas: "protecting and fully expanding affordable coverage for parents and pregnant women; keeping kids covered all year round; helping families connect and stay covered; and covering all kids regardless of immigration status."

Ciriac Alvarez, Voices for Utah Children health policy and community engagement fellow, understands the challenges they face.

"We know that this is a big lift for our coalition, which is why this is a multiyear campaign that we are working on to make sure that all kids have health care coverage," Alvarez said.

"A lot of (uninsured Utah children) qualify for CHIP or Medicaid, (parents) just don’t know about the coverage or they are turning on or off Medicaid," Alvarez said, noting that Medicaid does not give continuous coverage as eligibility for the program varies with changes in income and applicants have to reapply monthly.

"They might have Medicaid for the first three months and then their parents have a slight bump in their income, say they make $20 more, and so they don’t qualify," she said.

Utah lawmakers passed a partial Medicaid expansion bill during this year's legislative session, however, the program covers only those earning up to 100 percent of the approximately $12,000 federal poverty rate.

Jessie Mandle, Voices for Utah Children's senior health policy analyst, said the campaign advocates for full Medicaid expansion that she believes is "one of the most important ways that we can make sure that all kids are connecting with coverage."

But the issue of uninsured children goes beyond qualifying for federally funded programs, she said.

"There is this climate of fear and there are families that feel like these programs are not welcoming to them or they are afraid to enroll because of fear of retribution (due to documentation status)," she said. The organization believes this is having an impact on the increasing number of uninsured children in the state.

(Photo: Joseph Tolman)

Comunidades Unidas is one of the coalition's partner organizations and provides a number of services ranging from immigration services to advice and help obtaining health coverage.

Yehemy Zavala Orozco, Comunidades Unidas' preventive health program manager, said the coalition works to educate and combat the stigmas and fear that prevent many in the Latino community from accessing health care.

"The problem at the end of the day is that people have fear because they watch the news and people are telling them not to share information," she said, noting that " (Comunidades Unidas) let them know that the Utah Department of Health does not share information with ICE."

Advocates for the campaign agreed that these issues do not solely affect the Latino community because, they said, out-of-pocket pocket emergency visits and lack of access to preventive care drives up medical spending, placing a burden on the economy.

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