Fund the child health insurance program

The North Carolina Senate's plan to suspend enrollment in the state's Health Choice virtually ensures that many of the thousands of N.C. children who qualify won't have health insurance. As a result, their health will be at risk.

About 120,000 N.C. children are currently insured under the Health Choice program. Those who qualify must be aged 6-19 and members of families with incomes from 100 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That's $21,000 to $42,000 for a family of four. Children in families with lower incomes are covered by Medicaid.

About 70,000 who qualify remain uninsured. There is not enough money to cover them. About 10,000 more children were expected to enroll this year, an 8 percent increase. Both the N.C. House and Gov. Mike Easley supported funding to meet that projected need.

The Senate should have, too. Instead, the Senate voted to freeze the program and allow for a 2.4 percent increase when and if Congress reauthorizes its State Children's Health Insurance Program. Though there was political wrangling over SCHIP last year in Congress, reauthorization has widespread support. Congress extended SCHIP authorization and funding until March 30, 2009.

The impact of such a freeze is known. The state froze enrollment in 2001, and enrollment dropped 18 percent in six months. Even when the freeze was lifted, 14 percent fewer children took part. Children's advocates predict 36,000 children could be impacted by another freeze.

A study of the 2001 freeze found it caused extreme hardship for most of the families, delaying needed health care for their children. Most parents looked for other insurance options but couldn't afford the premiums even when the insurance was offered by their employer, according to Action for Children North Carolina, a child advocacy group..

North Carolina's children and families should not be put in this position. Those qualifying for the Health Choice program are only a portion of the N.C. children who have no insurance. An estimated 300,000 children are uninsured.

As the economy worsens, the numbers keep getting higher. In 2001, 11 percent of N.C. children 17 and younger were uninsured. By 2006, it was 13.2 percent – a 20 percent increase in five years.

North Carolina has made strides in improving the health and well-being of children. But as a recent national report underscores, the state still lags on children's health issues such as low birthweight babies, infant mortality and child deaths – problems that better access to health care could help. The lack of such care early on costs all of us later on. In that light, the Senate's plan is unwise indeed.