WASHINGTON – More than half of the 160,000 people who joined the ranks of the uninsured in Maryland last year were children under 18, according to the latest Census Bureau figures.
The number of Maryland children without insurance rose from 126,000 in 1997 to 211,000 in 1998, according to the statistics, which said that children now make up almost one-fourth of the 837,000 uninsured people in the state.
Analysts attribute the numbers to the rising cost of insurance and the reluctance of small employers to offer dependent care for employees, and at least one advocate points the finger at 1996 welfare reforms that forced a large number of people off Medicaid.
“Hundreds of families who were dropped off welfare after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act did not retain Medicaid coverage for themselves and their families because of the high costs,” said Steven Findlay, senior policy analyst for the National Coalition for Health Care in Washington, D.C.
The number of Maryland children under Medicaid, insurance that covers people with a low income, dropped from 151,000 in 1997 to 43,000 in 1998, according to the Census report.
It said the percentage of Marylanders without insurance rose from 13.4 percent in 1997 to 16.6 percent in 1998. Maryland recorded one of the highest increases in the country, ranking third among the 16 states that showed an increase in the numbers of uninsured people.
Some people, however, questioned the accuracy of the Census Bureau statistics.
“I think we have to look with caution at these figures which are based on a small sample,” said John Colmers, executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission.
He said the state is working to reduce the numbers of uninsured children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which started in July with funds from the federal government.
CHIP is aimed providing insurance for children whose families earn twice the federal poverty level or less. It has so far enrolled 58,000 children and pregnant women under 19, said Ned Wollman, assistant director of the office of eligibility and administration at CHIP.
He added that they were hoping to expand CHIP in the future to accommodate many more uninsured children.
But Findlay said CHIP was not enough to battle the rising numbers of children in the state without insurance.
“It is not compensation enough for the number of kids losing Medicaid. It’s just not enough yet to make a difference,” he said.
A lot more needs to be done by the government, said Findlay, like controlling insurance costs. While the state’s economy was booming, he said, the creation of a lot more service-sector jobs in the state had adversely affected insurance.
“Many small and mid-size companies no longer offer insurance because they find it too expensive,” he said.
The situation was worse for children, Findlay said, because even those companies that cover employees often do not subsidize costs for their families.
Wollman agreed that most people found insurance costs “prohibitive” and could not afford it when employers did not offer it.
“When there is a choice between food, shelter and insurance for children, people will opt for the first two,” he said.