Pennsylvania's Democrats decry drop in children's insurance

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HARRISBURG -- Senate Democrats are decrying a drop in the number of children insured through the state's health insurance program for uninsured kids and teens.

In the past two years, enrollment in Children's Health Insurance Program has declined by more than 7,700 kids, according to a letter sent by Senate Democrats to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, citing statistics from the state's Insurance Department from July 2011 to July 2013.

"At the same time, we are not seeing a dramatic increase in Medical Assistance enrollment," stated the letter, referring to the state's Medicaid program.

Declining enrollments in the Medicaid program under the Corbett administration has been a complaint of advocacy groups for some time. More than 80,000 kids were dropped from the rolls in 2011 and 2012 as the Department of Public Welfare tried to deal with backlogged cases.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report noted during that time frame most states saw gains in enrollment and Pennsylvania was one of the few states to see such a large drop.

"In fact, from August 2011 through November 2012, 98,149 children lost coverage through the Medical Assistance program," the letter stated.

"This dual decline in enrollment indicates tens of thousands of Pennsylvania children who had health insurance months ago now lack any health care coverage. We are concerned that recent administrative changes to the CHIP program and failing to utilize best practices are causing a decline in completed renewal forms and first-time applications," the letter added.

It was signed by Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and a number of other Senate Democrats, including Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, and Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport.

CHIP aims to provide insurance coverage to kids whose families make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but who can't afford private insurance. Started in 1992, it was later the model for a similar federal program. All children and teens in the state who are under 19 and uninsured are considered eligible.

Like Medicaid, CHIP is administered by states, but it is jointly funded by the federal government and states.

Pennsylvania has less money available for outreach to advertise CHIP than it did several years ago, said a spokeswoman for the Insurance Department, which administers the program.

"We do not have the funds we used to have to market [the] program," said Melissa Fox, a department spokeswoman. The agency has $1.5 million budgeted for outreach -- too little for major television ad buys, she said, and a decrease from a marketing budget of $3 million to $4 million several years ago.

Ms. Fox said the outreach budget has been about $1.5 million since the 2009-10 fiscal year -- during the administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Mr. Corbett's office pushed for an additional $8.5 million in state funds for CHIP in the current budget; a press release from the Insurance Department in January said the state hoped to enroll an additional 9,300 new children with the extra funds.

The governor also has insisted he would not want some CHIP kids to be moved involuntarily into Medicaid, as is required by the Affordable Care Act.

"I firmly believe that PA CHIP is the right program to meet the health-care needs of Pennsylvania children," he stated in a letter sent to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Friday.

Christine Cronkright, a spokeswoman for Mr. Corbett's office, said via email, "Outreach funding for CHIP was cut under the Rendell administration by many of these same individuals now asking to expand the program. The governor has been clear and consistent in the past year in his support of the CHIP program, signing into law a budget that increases funding for outreach and enrollment efforts for CHIP. If the Democrats [want] to provide ideas to us on how to improve that outreach, we are open to having a conversation."

Among the suggestions the senators made to improve enrollment:

• Make health insurance screening and referral processes a part of school registration.

• Include a check-off box for insurance on the CHIP flyer that is sent to parents at beginning of each school year. Parents would sign and return the form each year.

• Use a joint application and renewal form for Medicaid and CHIP.

CHIP currently covers 187,903 children statewide, according to Insurance Department statistics. More than 1 million Pennsylvania children are enrolled in Medicaid.

The state already uses a joint application for CHIP and Medicaid, Ms. Fox said.

She emphasized CHIP is "still an active and vibrant program" and has no waiting list for eligible kids to enroll.

"If a family were to apply today, coverage for their child -- if eligible -- can happen in as little as six weeks. In the last two decades, more than 1 million children have benefited from the program," she said in an email.

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Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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