More than 1.1 million children are currently uninsured in California, according to a recent report by the California HealthCare Foundation, an organization developed by the USC Keck School of Medicine and a health policy firm Diringer and Associates.
The study’s findings seem foreboding. California’s proportion of children without health coverage has climbed over the years to reach 11 percent in 2011 — higher than the national average.
According to experts, many factors drive these statistics, including the structure of a parent’s health insurance plan or whether a parent’s employer offers health insurance.
“The most important reasons are that the parents [of the children] work in businesses that are not offering health insurance, either because they can’t afford it or because they choose not to for one reason or another. Or they may offer it to the parents, but not to the kids,” said Michael Cousineau, lead author of the report and USC Keck research associate professor of preventative medicine. “We [also] have large numbers of undocumented kids in California that are not eligible for a lot of programs and public programs.”
Wilbert H. Mason Jr., a USC Keck professor of clinical pediatrics, pointed out several societal repercussions of uninsured youth, such as interference with education and development of long-term disabilities, which might increase the overall cost of health care
“If a child gets meningitis, for example, because they weren’t immunized from that common form of bacterial meningitis, they suffer long-term neurologic complications or have learning disabilities,” Mason said. “[They become] financially [dependent] for the rest of his or her life because of the need to take care of the conditions that … a very simple shot could have prevented.”
Stephanie Lu, a freshman majoring in biochemistry, said it is important that more programs be developed to correct the trend.
“There should be more health programs that have affordable insurance parents can buy for their children, or we need to create more jobs so that parents can make enough money to afford it,” Lu said.
The report suggests that improvement might be on the horizon. The 46-percent expansion of public coverage through Medi-Cal and Healthy Families between 2002 and 2011 continues to fill the gap that the 16 percent decline in employer-based coverage has caused. According to the study, the number of children enrolled in Medi-Cal jumped from 2.6 million in 2001 to nearly 3.7 million in 2011. The new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, if implemented, could also help by expanding access through public programs, such as Medicaid, Cousineau said. In addition, he said California Health Benefits Exchange will support families with subsidized premiums.
“[It will have a] huge impact, because not only is it going to provide new opportunities for kids who don’t have coverage, but it will also provide resources to help them pay for the premium,” Cousineau said. “Also, families in small businesses will be able to buy health insurance through this exchange and pay for it. If they have health insurance when they’re really young, we can pick up problems early on before they get worse. If they see a child with a developmental problem, they can order intervention that will help kids get coverage and the treatments they need.”
According to the report, more than three-quarters of uninsured children in California are currently eligible for Medi-Cal. But eligibility is only the first step.
“We have to find them, we have to educate them about health insurance and what their opportunities are and what their options are, and make it easy for people to enroll and have it [available] at schools and other places where children and their families are more likely to encounter an outreach worker and enroll,” Cousineau said.
The new California Health Benefits Exchange, which will give at least 1 million uninsured children a chance at eligibility for Medi-Cal or private coverage, will still exclude children of undocumented immigrants. They will remain dependent on safety-net clinics and public hospitals, such as the LAC+USC Medical Center, unless changes are made to immigration law.
Vice President of the USC Health Care Business Club Camille Wu, a junior majoring in business administration and public policy, management and planning, said she believes awareness through education is another solution because many people believe young individuals tend to be healthier and do not require insurance.
“One thing that needs to happen is, either through the government or through nonprofits, they need to raise awareness of the effects of being uninsured,” Wu said.
Cousineau believes Californians will see the effects of the Affordable Care Act, enacted in March 2010, and the California Health Benefits Exchange — a set of plans that will be fully implemented in 2014.
“I expect to see [a decrease in the number of uninsured] beginning in late 2013,” Cousineau said, “because already, we’ve been starting outreach efforts.”