States Cut Health Spending on the Poor

Monday, December 22nd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ More than 1.2 million low-income Americans, including 500,000 children, have lost health coverage as a result of state cutbacks in programs for the poor, according to a new study by a liberal Washington think tank.

Thirty-four states have cut health insurance programs for the poor and children because of deep budget deficits over the past two years, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said.

Further cuts are likely next year, when a temporary federal government increase in its share of Medicaid expires, the group said. Medicaid is the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor.

``Cuts of this magnitude in health coverage for low-income families are unprecedented,'' said Leighton Ku, a senior fellow at the think tank.

The report is being released Monday with a state-by-state survey of cuts and restrictions in coverage. The center provided a copy to The Associated Press.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid has no data that suggests so many people are losing benefits, a spokesman said.

The cuts have come primarily in Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Programs, or SCHIP, created in 1997 to cover those in poor families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Government and private studies have found that SCHIP helped reduce the percentage of American children without health insurance.

But now, states are restricting eligibility for Medicaid and SCHIP. For example, Missouri tightened the Medicaid eligibility limit from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 77 percent, the report found.

Six states, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Montana and Utah, have stopped enrolling children in their SCHIP programs, the report said.

One of those children is Zion Brown, 3, of Orlando, who has been on a waiting list to enter Florida's Medi-Kids program for four months, said his mother, Jeanane Frank.

Frank said she signed her son up for the program after getting a letter from state officials saying he was eligible. Then she received another saying he was on a waiting list.

In the meantime, Frank said she can't afford a doctor's visit for Brown and so can't get him his immunizations.

``If he can't get his shots, he can't go to daycare and I'm afraid that's going to put me out of a job,'' she said. Frank lost her eligibility for Medicaid when she took a full-time job at a resort, she said.

Other states required participants to reapply for their health benefits more frequently _ every 6 months instead of annually _ the report said. Such changes are considered barriers to enrollment that inevitably result in people losing their coverage.