State aims to help children without insurance

The Baltimore Sun

Inspired by Howard County's success in finding uninsured children eligible for federal health coverage, state officials are launching a search of their own.

Health officials are preparing to mail notices to tens of thousands of people across Maryland whose family members might be eligible for a federal program that provides access to affordable health care.

A bill approved this month by the General Assembly directs the comptroller's office to review state tax information to determine who might be eligible and then notify the families.

The statewide initiative comes on the heels of the comptroller's office sending more than 21,000 letters on behalf of Howard County. Mailed two weeks ago, the letters were a part of Howard's new plan to begin providing access to health care for uninsured county residents, including 5,000 children.

Part of that plan is to use existing programs that people might not know about, such as the federally funded State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

In addition to recruiting more uninsured children, state health officials said a second mailing will be conducted to notify families that are newly eligible for Medicaid following General Assembly approval of expanded eligibility criteria.

Starting July 1, people with incomes up to 116 percent of the federal poverty level - $24,492 for a family of four - will be eligible among the state's roughly 750,000 uninsured residents.

State health department officials will compose both letters and Comptroller Peter Franchot's office will mail them to protect the privacy of tax records. It is not known how many letters will go out, said Joe Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot.

Both of the state mailings, which are expected to go out sometime this summer, will use tax information from the comptroller to target the recipients.

The Howard County program is scheduled to launch Oct. 1, and Health Officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson hopes to enroll about 2,000 people the first year. He plans on using the data collected in that first year to guide expansion and help other local governments that want to replicate the plan, called Healthy Howard.

The county, which has a population of about 271,000, received more than 550 responses in the two weeks since Franchot's office sent letters notifying residents of possible eligibility for SCHIP. The letters went to residents with incomes less than 300 percent of federal poverty levels, which is Maryland's eligibility ceiling. That equals $61,500 for a family of four.

"If we got 500 to 600 responses, that means in [Baltimore], they're going to get thousands," said Beilenson, who was formerly Baltimore's health officer.

The eligibility criteria for the SCHIP program could face modification in the near future. The Bush administration is pushing to limit access to the program to families with incomes less than 250 percent of federal poverty levels, and federal regulations call for "corrective action" by August if states don't conform.

But John G. Folkemer, a deputy state health secretary, said that because there is both a lawsuit and congressional legislation pending to reverse or delay the Bush administration rules, the state will not change practices at this point.

The responses Howard is receiving are being entered into a database to enable later analysis, Beilenson said.

Some of the responses have come from parents seeking insurance themselves, he said, and a few were people asking about coverage for young adults under age 25.

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