Number of Washington children with health insurance nearly triples in three years

OLYMPIA -- A record number of children in low-income working families in Washington 184,195 as of July 31 now have health care coverage through state-supported programs, Gov. Mike Lowry announced today. The July total represents an increase of nearly 121,000 children since January 1993.

Joined by a number of families who belong to the programs, the governor told a morning news conference the state has made remarkable progress in helping low-income people afford medical care.

"Three years ago, only 63,000 children in low-income non-welfare families had health care coverage," the governor said. "Now, nearly three times as many children are able to get the critical health services they need through our outstanding, affordable health care plans."

The governor said the dramatic increase in the number of children who have access to medical care is both a godsend for low-income families and a wise investment for the state.

"One of the best investments we can make in the future is to help make sure our state's children have the medical care they need to grow into strong and healthy adults," Lowry said. "Helping low-income parents afford health care coverage for their kids is one of the best ways to do that."

"Knowing that their children can visit a doctor for an ear infection or other illness offers them peace of mind, certainly, but these programs also save money in the long run, because parents are able to get help for their sick kids early on, before they need more complex and more costly care."

Lowry added that increased access to affordable health care plays a significant role in helping low-income working people stay on the job and off public assistance.

In Washington, children in low-income families can receive basic medical services through either of two programs: the Basic Health Plan or the state's Healthy Options program. Low-income children whose parents are in the Basic Health Plan (BHP) can be included in the same plan as their parents, or can receive an expanded package of benefits through BHP Plus.

All low-income children in the state are eligible for the same expanded package of benefits through the state's Healthy Options program. Parents whose children are enrolled in Healthy Options which is administered by the state Department of Social and Health Services pay no premiums or copayments for their kids.

Both BHP Plus and Healthy Options offer a wide range of benefits that are critical for healthy growth including checkups, immunizations, eyeglasses, hearing aids. Dental care and some mental health care are also available.

Health care coverage for children was expanded dramatically as part of the 1993 Health Services Act, which Lowry pushed for during the 1993 legislative session and ultimately signed into law. The Legislature funded parts of the Act including expansion of the Basic Health Plan through new taxes on tobacco products, hard liquor, beer, insurance premiums and hospitals' gross income. The tax package was designed to generate an estimated $476 million in revenue for the 1995-97 biennium.

In 1994, the state expanded eligibility for Medicaid's health care programs for kids, which brought more children into both BHP and the Healthy Options program. The expansion allowed for coverage of children up to age 19 in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $31,200 annually for a family of four).

Prior to the expansion, program eligibility was based on a child's age. Children from birth to age 1 were covered if their parents' incomes were up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level; children aged 1 to 6 were eligible if their parents' earnings were up to 133 percent; and kids from age 6 to 19 were covered if their parents' incomes were up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

The governor said program statistics tell an unmistakable story.

For fiscal year 1996, a total of $205 million was spent to provide health care coverage for kids through the two programs. Of the $205 million, about half $103 million came from state funds.

In addition, overall enrollment in Basic Health Plan programs has jumped in recent months to 163,666, a dramatic increase over the 22,458 members in 1993.

The state's Basic Health Plan provides affordable health insurance coverage for low-income individuals and families, self-employed people and part-time workers and their families. Members receive a basic set of benefits and pay monthly premiums based on their income, family size, age and the health plan they choose.

"Washington remains far ahead of the rest of the nation in having a health care system that provides universal access," the governor said. "Washington is among the top states in the nation in providing health care access for low-income children. We have expanded access to health care for those who need it most, and we have made sure that no one in this state can be turned down for health insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition."

But the governor emphasized this progress does not mean the state's work is complete.

"We must continue to work on getting health care coverage for all families of our state," he said. "We still have thousands of children without any health care coverage at all, and we must find ways to provide coverage to all who need it."

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For more information, contact the Governor's Communications Office at 360-753-6790.