By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN
ANNAPOLIS (April 5, 2008) - When a north-central Maryland middle school student broke his hand at school, the emergency room said he needed orthopedic care. But the boy was uninsured, a representative from the Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Care Reform told the Senate Finance Committee Thursday.
The boy, said coalition Vice Chair Leni Preston, was eligible for government health care programs, but not enrolled. A school social service agency paid for an orthopedic visit and cast using money from a community fund reserved for school supplies.
"These children are not statistics and their situations are very real," said Preston, who did not disclose the school's name.
Such stories highlight the urgent need to enroll more eligible families in government health coverage programs, say supporters of the Kids First Act. The bill would, among other things, require the comptroller's office to send information about Medicaid and the Maryland Children's Health Program to potentially eligible low-income families who filed taxes this year.
Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, proposed the bill with the intent of mandating health coverage for children in the state if things don't improve in a few years, but the idea drew some opposition from fellow lawmakers. The bill passed in the House last month with a vote of 128 to 10.
"I just think that's beyond the scope of what the comptroller should be doing," said Delegate Gail Bates, R-Howard, an opponent.
Mizeur said nearly 10 percent, or 137,000 of the state's children are uninsured, and 90,000 of them qualify for, but are not enrolled in, government programs.
The state's Medicaid program provides health coverage to low-income individuals and families under certain circumstances. The Maryland Children's Health Program provides coverage to needy children younger than 19 who are uninsured and ineligible for Medicaid, and also covers low-income pregnant women of any age.
Mizeur said children in families with incomes that are roughly three times the federal poverty level, or up to $63,000 per year for a family of four, are already eligible for one of those programs.
Under her bill, families will disclose on next year's tax returns whether or not their children are insured. The comptroller's office would be required to send application forms and enrollment instructions directly to eligible families.
Mizeur hopes the disclosures help collect accurate information about uninsured children. It also compels state agencies to conduct studies on the subject.
By 2009, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and other agencies would make recommendations for expanding children's coverage, particularly to families ineligible for public programs.
The Maryland Health Care Commission and the comptroller would study and make recommendations on the implementation of mandatory children's health coverage if more than 3 percent of children are uninsured by 2011.
The original bill imposed a mandate by prohibiting families from claiming uninsured children as dependents, but amendments in the version passed by the House put off mandates and contain exceptions, such as financial hardship.
If signed into law, the bill would be in effect for three years beginning this July.
The comptroller's office and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene support the measure.
The Maryland Catholic Conference is opposed to certain parts of the bill because a mandate could potentially punish uninsured families, said Julie Varner, associate director for social concerns.
"We really don't believe any parent chooses not to have their children covered," she said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.