The Star-Ledger

New Record For Uninsured N.J. Kids

State now has 360,000 without health care, according to a report

The Star-Ledger — Friday, May 8, 2009

BY SUSAN K. LIVIO
STATEHOUSE BUREAU

The number of uninsured children in New Jersey has reached an all-time high despite the wide availability of FamilyCare, one of the nation's most generous state-run health insurance programs for working poor families, according to a report released yesterday.

There were 360,000 children who lacked health coverage for at least part of 2008, based on income tax filings to the state this year. The state had previously never topped the 294,000 calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau for all of 2006 and 2007.
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"Given the current economy and increases in the number of unemployed residents, it is likely that the number of uninsured children in New Jersey will continue to grow," according to the report issued by a task force representing nine state departments and offices including the Office of the Child Advocate, as well as public policy and advocacy groups such as the Association for Children of New Jersey.

Theoretically, FamilyCare should be in greater demand because it is available to many people and has relatively reasonable premiums and co-pays, compared to the market rate. And a law enacted nearly a year ago mandated universal health coverage for kids. But enrollment for children remains sluggish. Last month, FamilyCare provided HMO-style coverage for 131,500 children.

The report's authors studied the reasons why people don't sign up and recommended a battery of changes that would make the program more appealing.

"We learned that many families are not aware of the availability of free or low-cost health insurance programs," according to the report. "Others are overwhelmed by requirements and information necessary for the enrollment and renewal processes or are unable to pay required monthly premiums."

A "huge proportion" of uninsured kids come from families with at least one noncitizen, and there are misconceptions that their children do not qualify or that federal immigration authorities will use the application to find illegal residents, said Joel Cantor, director of the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University and a task force member.

"There are language barriers, cultural barriers, people not wanting to take government assistance — all these things add up," Cantor said. "Much can be gained by language appropriate outreach. Using community-based organizations is more effective than a website or a flier."

The work group also suggested simplifying the processes of applying and paying for FamilyCare. The state could create a more fully automated system in which they can check the status of their applications and use one application for multiple social service programs, the report says. It is also suggested that the state should also work with employers to allow people to pay their premiums through their weekly paycheck.

"While some progress has been made, there is still much work to do," Mary Coogan, assistant director for the Association for Children of New Jersey, said. "Children who receive regular and preventative health care are more likely to be healthy, attend school regularly and have a better quality of life."

For more information about FamilyCare, call 1-800-701-0710 or visit njfamilycare.org.

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