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Too many Montana children lack health insurance

by Lauren Wilson
| June 27, 2021 12:00 AM

In a prosperous Montana, all children – in our cities, rural areas, tribal communities, and everywhere in between – would be able to grow with health and security. Children who have health care are better able to grow into happy, fulfilled adults who contribute to their communities. But Montana’s children are losing out, and our state has work to do.

The 32nd annual KIDS Count Data Book was released this week comparing all 50 states in child well-being. Montana is falling behind other states in health insurance coverage for our children, ranking 29th in the country. While Montana does better in health care coverage for children than a decade ago, that progress has stalled and is now going in the wrong direction. There are 15,000 children in Montana who lack health insurance – close to the number of students in the entire Billings school district.

These numbers are simply too high. Children who lack health coverage are at risk for going through common childhood illnesses without needed treatment, missing out on proper recovery after an injury, and succumbing to later health problems that could have been avoided with adequate preventative care. Parents of these children are at risk of losing their savings and taking on debt in order to get care for their child. This is not the Montana our children and families deserve.

Looking at the data more closely reveals that children living in families with lower incomes are more likely to go without health insurance, even though these children are eligible for Medicaid or Healthy Montana Kids (CHIP). This data comes soon after a legislative session in which we saw lawmakers attack public assistance programs, making it harder for families with these programs to stay enrolled. In Montana, half of all children rely on Medicaid or Healthy Montana Kids for health insurance. Our state should defend these programs and improve outreach to enroll uninsured children who are eligible, but not currently participating.

Increasing insurance enrollment for children saves money, increasing the amount of preventive care children can access and making them less likely to need emergency care. A study of child health showed that “the annual mean societal cost of caring for uninsured children is $2,885.75 greater per year than for children obtaining insurance.”

Some counties across the state see especially high uninsured rates for children. In three counties, more than 20 percent of lower-income children (families with income less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level) lack health insurance. Rural counties tend to have a higher percent of children who lack health insurance, while the highest number of children without health insurance live in more populated counties. No matter where children grow up in our state, Montana should ensure children have health insurance. For children who are eligible for Medicaid or Healthy Montana Kids – let’s get them enrolled so they have health insurance when they need it.

The data tells a story: thousands of children in Montana do not have the health care coverage they need. Ensuring that every child has health insurance is a simple, effective way to help a new generation of Montanans grow into healthy and thriving adults.

Lauren Wilson is a pediatrician in Missoula. She currently serves as vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.