States to receive federal bonuses for covering uninsured children

Alex WayneBloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- Alaska is one of 23 states to share $296.5 million in federal payments for encouraging low-income families to enroll their children in public health programs.

Bonuses announced Wednesday reward states that streamline eligibility for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, or the Children's Health Insurance Program. The effort is aimed at children younger than 19 from households with annual incomes of as much as $45,000 for a family of four, though some states have more generous criteria.

Despite the flagging economy, the number of uninsured children decreased to 5.9 million in 2010 from 6.9 million in 2008, according to a study by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute in Washington. Children still drop off program rolls because parents don't renew eligibility, increasing the likelihood of missed vaccinations and dental checkups, said Tricia Brooks, a senior fellow at the Georgetown institute.

"Families may avoid routine preventive care with the hope they'll have more money next month or delay seeking care until they know they really have to bring the children in," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "At that point, the emergency room is a likely choice."

Alaska will receive a performance bonus for the third year. Alaska has made several program improvements to streamline the children's health coverage enrollment process, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. For example, applicants are not required to appear for face-to-face interviews, which can be especially difficult for working parents.

In addition, Alaska guarantees eligible children enrollment for a full year, ensuring that needed care is not disrupted. Alaska also uses existing electronic databases to verify family information, reducing the need for families to submit paperwork when it is time to renew coverage. This makes it easier for eligible children to keep their coverage for as long as they qualify.

The largest bonus went to Maryland, which received $28.3 million. Virginia was next highest with $26.7 million, followed by Colorado with $26.1 million. Connecticut, Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia were among first-time recipients under the 2009 federal law.

State-by-state variations and continued tough economic times make any gains fragile, according to scholars studying those without health insurance.

Massachusetts had the lowest rate of uninsured children, while Nevada had the highest, according to the Georgetown study that analyzed data from 2008 to 2010. Florida made the most progress in the three years, cutting the number of uninsured children by 160,824.

Bloomberg News