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WASHINGTON - Despite a struggling economy, the number of uninsured children in the United States has decreased by 1.8 million since 1999, particularly among low-income and minority youths, a report released Thursday said.
Child advocates attributed the change to increased awareness of federal and state programs that provide low-cost or free health coverage to children and families.
But they cautioned that nearly 8 million children remain unable to receive basic medical services because they lack health insurance, even though about half of them are eligible for government-subsidized health care.
"The good news is that despite a weak economy, the number of uninsured children in America has declined," said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which announced the numbers. "We must build on the progress that has been made in enrolling children in the program."
Noting that many families are not aware that in most states they can earn up to $36,000 and still receive benefits, Lavizzo-Mourey said her organization is conducting a nationwide effort to enroll eligible children in Medicaid and the State Children Health Insurance Program.
The two government programs - which are operated by the states - enrolled more than 17 million people in 2002 when the survey of nearly 40,000 households was done. The programs fund medical services such as doctor visits, dental care, vision exams, prescription drugs and immunizations.
Until January, Chicagoan Patricia Serpa was having trouble providing her five children with medical coverage on her $8-an-hour job at Einstein Bagels. Her husband, Carlos, lost his job in September and has not taken another because their oldest child, Dominique, 9, has cerebral palsy and requires constant attention.
Serpa said she could not afford the $250 monthly fee for her company's health care plan, and did not know her family was eligible for subsidized coverage until someone at her church told her about Illinois KidCare.
"If we didn't have the program we'd be broke," Serpa said.
At a news conference Thursday, Lavisso-Mourey, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and others showcased the Serpas and others who were struggling to provide their families with medical coverage until they learned about the government programs. They encouraged anyone with uninsured children to call 1-877-KIDS-NOW to determine their eligibility.
Nearly 80 percent of the 1.8 million additional children who received health care since 1999 came from low-income households. The survey said low-income families - those making less than twice the poverty level - are still three times more likely than higher-income families to be without insurance.
In a state-by-state analysis, Vermont had the lowest percentage of uninsured children under age 18 at 3.7 percent, while Texas had the highest, at 22.1 percent.
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.