Utah has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the U.S.

Jose Esparza, a family nurse practitioner at Central City Community Health Center in Salt Lake City, performs an annual checkup on a teenager without insurance on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — More Utah children are without insurance coverage, following a national trend amid federal disconnect on health care policy.

"You would not expect in Utah's strong economy to see children losing insurance, and that's exactly what's happening," said Jessie Mandle, senior policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children, advocates for Utah's youngest citizens.

An estimated 72,000 Utah kids were uninsured in 2018, up 22% from 2016, according to a report released by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. It was an increase from 6% to 7.4% — the second-largest increase in child uninsured rates in the nation.

At least 400,000 more kids across the United States went without insurance from 2016 to 2018, reversing a long-standing positive trend, according to the Georgetown report. Nationwide, more than 4 million kids in the were uninsured in 2018, the highest since coverage expansions created by the Affordable Care Act took effect in 2014.

"This has a significant impact on kids' health coverage and care," Mandle said, adding that without insurance, long-term diagnoses are delayed, kids are more likely to miss school because they're sick and fewer of them graduate from high school.

"It has ripple effects throughout their lives," she said.

In Utah, kids typically aren't insured when their parents aren't either. Mandle said many parents are unaware whether they or their children are eligible for any type of coverage. She encourages anyone in that boat to call 2-1-1, a function of the United Way that connects Utahns to various resources that may be of help.

One of the issues, Mandle said, is an existing policy in Utah that leads to disruptions in child coverage, specifically when kids are kicked off their health plans when the family income level changes.

"We need to encourage families to improve their economic circumstances, not penalize them," she said.

Uncertainty at the federal level also leads to a lot of confusion and misinformation about available options. There have been attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in part and its entirety, as well as cuts to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which have led to reduced outreach efforts and fewer navigators to help.

Mandle said there have also been a lot of "anti-immigrant hostilities and policies" at the federal level that deter eligible families in Utah from enrolling and taking advantage of benefits for which they are entitled.

"Recent policy changes and the failure to make children's health a priority have undercut bipartisan initiatives and the Affordable Care Act, which had propelled our nation forward on children's health coverage," said Joan Alker, executive director of the independent, nonpartisan Georgetown University Center for Children and Families and a research professor of public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based institution. "The serious erosion of child health coverage is due in large part to the Trump Administration's actions or inactions that have made health coverage harder to access and have deterred families from enrolling their eligible children in Medicaid and CHIP."

Drawing attention to the recent report is Voices for Utah Children's latest attempt to point to the urgency in Utah to expand Medicaid. Kids in states where Medicaid remains restrictive are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured, the report states.

The Utah Legislature sidestepped a public majority that voted for full expansion in the state in 2018. State health officials are in the process of filing multiple waivers and whittling down what conservative lawmakers have deemed "affordable" and/or "sustainable" options.

"For a child-friendly state, we can do better," Mandle said. "We need to be doing better."

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Wendy Leonard is a deputy news director at KSL.com. Prior to this, she was a reporter for the Deseret News since 2004, covering a variety of topics, including health and medicine, police and courts, government and other issues relating to family.


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