AUGUSTA — A new statewide study concluded Wednesday that many of Maine’s children lack adequate health insurance while a special commission on children’s needs offered a possible solution.
The Maine Commission on Children’s Health Care issued its final report recommending that the Legislature expand health care coverage to more than 21,000 Maine children from working families. The 16-member commission’s State House morning press conference followed a presentation by the Maine Children’s Alliance on its release of the 1998 Maine Kids Count Data Book.
The alliance’s statistical profile of Maine’s children and youth provides comparative analysis statewide and county by county on the physical and mental health of children, community and family environment, social and economic opportunity and education. The study depicted what Richard J. Warren, president of the alliance’s board of directors, described as a “widening gap” between what the state’s children need and what they’re receiving.
Despite positive findings placing Maine as first in the nation for child immunizations, the state with second-lowest high school dropout rate in the country and the lowest rate of teen-age pregnancy, the study contains some less encouraging statistics. Warren, the editor and publisher of the Bangor Daily News, said the report should be a cause for concern.
“The situation is not all that bad,” Warren said. “But the facts reveal circumstances that are casting a shadow over our children’s future, clearly reducing their opportunity to develop into healthy, well-educated, self-sufficient adults. Too many Maine children are falling into a widening gap of abuse, violence and health problems.”
Assisted in previous years by some small state grants, the alliance’s work is almost exclusively underwritten through a partnership of private foundations and corporate sponsors. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Maine Community Foundation and the Bingham Program are among several of the private foundations who have funded the costly process of gathering field information necessary to complete the study. Corporate sponsors include Fleet Bank, WCSH-TV and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Maine.
“So often companies are seen as faceless institutions,” Warren said. “But these companies are made of very real people who have demonstrated deep and genuine corporate commitment to the public and to the well-being of the children and families in Maine.”
Children’s advocates were alarmed by the alliance’s conclusion that more than 36,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms by children in 1994 could have been more appropriately and effectively treated in a physician’s office. The report noted incidences of cigarette smoking among teen-agers reached an average of 38 percent in 1996.
The Kids Count data also recorded 4,656 cases of child abuse in 1996, while specifying the number of referrals to the state for child abuse and neglect went unassigned in 2,823 cases because of a lack of resources.
The study also found an average of 11.7 percent of Maine children lacked any form of health insurance from 1992 to 1996. That statistic came as no surprise to the Commission on Children’s Health care, which has developed draft legislation to extend health care coverage to low-income families.
“All children deserve a healthy start in life,” said Rep. Randall Berry, D-Livermore, commission chairman. “Every family deserves the security of knowing their children will get the health care they need. The recommendations that we are proposing today will go a long way toward assuring these basic goals for every Maine child.”
In its report, the commission recommended expanding Medicaid coverage to include families of three with incomes below $20,000. A second tier of the program would underwrite the cost of premiums (proportionate to family income) for families of three with incomes between $20,000 and $24,700. A third component would allow families in either program who lose eligibility because of increasing family income to purchase the reduced-rate insurance for up to 18 months.
Funds for the insurance expansion program would be raised through a combination of federal and state dollars, $8.2 million of which was set aside for health care coverage during the last session of the Legislature. Those state revenues would draw $61.5 million in federal matching money over the next five years.
While acknowledging philosophical support for all child welfare initiatives, Gov. Angus S. King is reluctant to commit the state to millions of dollars for new programs when the state’s recent economic history has been marked by so much instability. Yet commission members like Rep, J. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Portland, insist cost-effective programs such as the Medicaid expansion proposal can’t afford to be passed by.
“There are good financial and medical reasons why the state should help cover uninsured children,” she said. “This plan will encourage preventative care and help reduce the cost of hospital charity care. It’s a smart investment that’s good for Maine’s working families.”
Elinor Goldberg, the alliance’s executive director, was encouraged by the legislative initiative supported, in part, by the work of her organization. But health insurance is only one banner on the long line of warning flags attached to the Kids Count Data Book.
“We have tried to spotlight areas where we must do better and support an era of continuing improvement,” she said of the report. “The gap in our care for the children and youth of Maine need not widen. We can bridge it and help a generation of Maine children enter a new century better equipped in mind, body and spirit.”