Betsabel Cazares, 15 months, receives a routine checkup Thursday from Gisela Garrison, director of the Northwest Colorado Community Health Center. The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association hopes to increase the number of local children enrolled in health insurance programs, possibly through federal recovery grants.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Betsabel Cazares, 15 months, receives a routine checkup Thursday from Gisela Garrison, director of the Northwest Colorado Community Health Center. The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association hopes to increase the number of local children enrolled in health insurance programs, possibly through federal recovery grants.

Many children without coverage

Federal recovery grant may help VNA get more families insurance

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By the numbers

Statistics for the number of uninsured children, who would be eligible to enroll in Medicaid or Child Health Plan insurance.

Moffat County:

• 3,405 children, ages birth to 18

• 1,061 children eligible for Medicaid or CHP

• 844 children enrolled

• 217 children eligible, but uninsured (20.5 percent of eligible children)

Rio Blanco County:

• 1,546 children

• 435 children eligible

• 336 children enrolled

• 99 children eligible, but uninsured (22.8 percent of eligible children)

Routt County:

• 5,085 children

• 845 children eligible

• 522 children enrolled

• 323 children eligible, but uninsured (38.2 percent of eligible children)

Total:

• 639 children eligible, but uninsured (27.3 percent of eligible children)

— Listen to health care officials, and they'll say it hasn't been easy persuading families to enroll their children into Medicaid or Child Health Plan insurance, even when those children are eligible and uninsured.

Evette Simmons, eligibility and outreach coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said her office tried several gimmicks, with varying effectiveness.

However, despite the fact that children's Medicaid and CHP insurance costs nearly are nonexistent for enrolled families, some still are reluctant to sign up.

Simmons hopes a $40 million grant package for children's health insurance - announced Monday and available through federal recovery funds - may help the VNA carry its message further.

That message is simple: Providing health insurance to children is important.

"That's a question like, 'Why should people be insured,'" Simmons said. "To be eligible and be able to get that coverage but just not do it, is a shame."

A widespread shame in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, she added.

Of the children eligible for Medicaid or CHP insurance in Moffat County, an estimated 20.5 percent are uncovered, equal to 217 children.

In Rio Blanco County, that number jumps to 22.8 percent, or 99 children.

Routt County has the worst participation rate, with 38.2 percent of eligible children - or 323 children - now without insurance.

As tough as the numbers are, though, they may, in fact, be worse, Simmons said. Each of those estimates is based on 2007 data, collected before the recession forced the region's unemployment rates to double.

Simmons said the Colorado Health Foundation recently quoted a statistic that about 19,000 people across the state lose their health insurance for every percentage point increase in statewide unemployment.

Those numbers won't directly translate to Northwest Colorado, but Simmons said there is a correlation between fewer people with health care coverage and rising unemployment, which has struck this region, too.

From September 2008, when the stock market began to crash, until May 2009, which is the most recent data available from the state, unemployment in Moffat County went from 3.4 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

During the same time period, the state recorded an increase in unemployment in Rio Blanco County from 2.3 percent to 5.5 percent.

State records also show Routt County, in addition to having the highest percentage of eligible but uninsured children, had the highest unemployment spike of the three counties, from 3.4 percent in September 2008 to 8.7 percent in May 2009.

"Those numbers of unenrolled children are really high, and they're probably even a little higher now," Simmons said.

The VNA is now assessing what benefit the government's recovery grants may have.

Simmons said the grants are for "outreach," but that's a very broad term.

"Can we use it for staffing here, to bring people into the office, or for marketing?" she said. "And once we bring more people into the office to enroll their children, can we use any of the money for extra staffing to see those people?"

Hopefully, the money will enable the VNA to get more people to enroll their children, Simmons said, though she thinks the organization may have an uphill battle against some people's perceptions.

"I think part of it is a stigma about Medicaid and CHP, especially in Routt County," she said. "They don't want to come out in public and say, 'I need help.' Some people say they'll never go on Medicaid because they don't want the government's insurance."

Getting people to be proactive and enroll their children in a health care plan before they need to see a doctor also can be a struggle, Simmons said.

"When you can't pay your electricity bill, signing up for health insurance isn't always a top priority," she said.

The grant application will be a complicated process, and like all recovery grants, there won't be much time before applications are due, Simmons said.

In that regard, the VNA hopes to know what grant applications it will submit by this week or early next week, she added.

However, residents don't have to wait until then to enroll their children or see whether they're eligible.

The VNA provides eligibility experts who can consult with families, Simmons said. VNA offices are at 745 Russell St. or 824-8233 in Craig, and 940 Central Park Dr., Suite 101, or 879-1632 in Steamboat Springs.

Medicaid and CHP eligibility is determined by family size and annual income. Simmons said a family's cost to have a child insured under Medicaid is zero, while CHP can cost up to a one-time $25 enrollment fee for a year and $5 co-pays for office visits.

Children are eligible for both programs until age 19.

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