WASHINGTON – Children were less likely to have health insurance in Arizona than in any state except Texas or Nevada, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.
It said 12.58 percent of children in the state – roughly one of every eight age 17 and under – was uninsured in 2010, when the numbers were gathered. The national rate was 8 percent.
A state official said the number of uninsured children in Arizona “tends to be a little bit deceiving” because of the high number of undocumented immigrant children who are ineligible for most coverage.
But child health advocates in Arizona said the numbers sound about right.
“If you look at a number of factors in this state … then it’s not a surprise,” said Arizona’s Children Association President Fred Chaffee.
The recession has been the primary cause of the high rate of uninsured children, said Matt Jewett, director of health policy for the Phoenix-based Children’s Action Alliance.
Many Arizonans have health insurance through their or a family members’ work, according to Census data. But as parents lose jobs, families lose that health coverage.
For such families, privately purchased health insurance is often unaffordable, according to a Census report based on the data.
“As the economy deteriorates … yes, we do have more children that are uninsured,” said Chris Sexton, director of the Apache County Public Health Services District.
Apache County had the highest percentage of uninsured children in the state, among the counties broken out by the Census. The bureau did not release numbers for the five smallest counties, even though they were included in the overall state figures.
Arizona does provide KidsCare, a state–federal insurance program for eligible children whose families earned between one and two times the federal poverty limit and have no other options for healthcare, Jewett said. But the state froze enrollment in KidsCare in January 2010.
Nearly 30,000 children who were on the program have lost coverage since the freeze began and the KidsCare waiting list has ballooned to more than 120,000.
“If you have people (at) that lower end of the income scale who would be eligible for KidsCare, they may not have the option for private insurance, so they basically have no options,” said Dr. Eve Shapiro, a Tucson pediatrician.
The Census data, which was gathered throughout 2010, likely does not reflect the full impact of the KidsCare freeze, Jewett said.
Without insurance, families will wait until an emergency to seek care for their children, Chaffee said.
“In many instances, their primary–care physician will become the emergency room,” he said.
But Monica Coury, spokeswoman for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, cautioned against reading too much into the Census numbers.
“Aggregated data is good … but it doesn’t always tell the specific state story,” Coury said. She noted that the rate of uninsured children in Arizona is inflated by the state’s unique demography, which includes many undocumented immigrants.
“Our number tends to be a little bit deceiving in that regard,” she said.
Whatever the reasons for the high rate, child health advocates believe the KidsCare freeze to be the wrong decision.
“The policies they have chosen to balance the budget on the backs of children (are) ridiculous,” Shapiro said. “Because in the long term it’s going to have such far-reaching implications.”
Chaffee of Arizona’s Children Association agrees.
“Kids who are sick don’t thrive as well as healthy kids in school,” he said. “There will be some … workforce issues in the intermediate to long term.”
Max Levy is a reporter for Cronkite News Service