Next year, Congress will debate whether to renew a health insurance program.
WASHINGTON -- For the better part of a decade, fewer and fewer American children have gone without health insurance each year, a trend that diverged sharply from the seemingly inexorable rise in the number of adults without coverage.
For the first time since 1998, the number of children younger than 18 without health coverage ticked upward last year by 361,000, along with the overall increase in the ranks of the uninsured, according to census figures released last week. Of the nation's nearly 74 million children, about 8.3 million, or 11.2 percent, lacked coverage in 2005, up from 10.8 percent the year before.
The discouraging development surprised some health experts, who attributed the change to budget crunches that led some states to curtail enrollment of children in government-subsidized plans and steady declines in the number of people who receive health insurance through their jobs.
Children without health coverage are three times as likely as insured children to lack a regular doctor, according to a report released last month by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Research from the American College of Physicians in 2000 found uninsured children were less likely to be up to date on immunizations and to receive treatment for sore throats, earaches and other common childhood illnesses. A University of Texas study found kids with insurance tend to have fewer school absences.
The increase in the number of uninsured kids could play a major role in next year's debate in Congress over whether to renew the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a nine-year-old federal-state effort to provide health coverage to children of the working poor and near poor.
"There is a message in these numbers," said John Lumpkin, a physician who is a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "The only reason that number [of uninsured children] isn't worse is because we have Medicaid and SCHIP. ... We continue to have a crisis in this country with kids who have no health insurance."
Congress created the popular SCHIP program in 1997, directing tens of billions in matching funds to the states over 10 years. The goal was to provide health coverage for children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance on their own -- generally those with incomes as high as twice the poverty level, or $39,942 for a family of four last year.
In the first six years, about 3.9 million children were signed up for coverage, but enrollment has flattened since 2003. In part, that is because an economic downturn led some states to raise premiums, reduce outreach efforts and impose enrollment limits and new administrative hurdles, said Genevieve Kenney, a health economist at the nonprofit Urban Institute.
Enrollment limits or freezes lasting six months or longer took effect in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina and Utah, Kenney said.