Viridiana Herrera is a freshman at the University of Texas and the first person in her family to attend college. For the last three years, she led her high school’s efforts to sign up hundreds of Houston children for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through annual enrollment drives at neighborhood Fiesta Supermarkets and other events. But CHIP enrollment wasn’t just another community service project for Viridiana. She and her brother and sister are all CHIP recipients. They are among the thousands of children served by the program since it was started in 1997.
CHIP is designed primarily to help children in working families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to afford private family coverage. Right now there are more than 9 million children in the United States without health care coverage. Close to 90 percent of these uninsured children have at least one parent who works, but many of these families’ employers don’t offer affordable health coverage. Nearly 6 million of these children are eligible for either CHIP or Medicaid. All states and the District of Columbia offer coverage through CHIP. But eligibility and benefits vary from state to state, and as states make different decisions about budget priorities, more and more families are finding that their benefits are being cut or they’re no longer eligible at all.
The crisis is worst in Texas. Texas already leads the nation with the highest rate of uninsured children. Almost one in every four Texas children lacks coverage. After drastic new cuts by the state Legislature, Texas also leads the country limiting child health benefits. Viridiana and her siblings were among the 500,000 Texas children who lost dental and vision coverage under CHIP in 2003. All children enrolled in CHIP lost dental, vision, hospice, and most mental health serves under that cut (although mental health benefits have since been partially restored). Even worse, 151,000 children were completely dropped from the CHIP program.
Here are just a few stories of other Texas families hurt by these unjust and shortsighted cuts:
• A third-grade schoolteacher and single mother in West Texas lost coverage for her two children because her child care expenses were no longer taken into account in determining her income. Her daughter had a serious case of strep throat, and seven months later the mother is still paying off medical bills. She was able to provide medication for her daughter only because her doctor gave her free samples.
• “Anna” and her husband are a two-parent working family who can’t afford private health insurance for their children. She makes $8 an hour working at a health clinic, and he makes $9 an hour catering airplanes. Recently, the family was forced to pay $200 out-of-pocket for their daughter’s eyeglasses, couldn’t pay their light bill, and lost electricity for two days during the hottest month of the year. They put their children in the bathtub in the middle of the night to keep them cool.
• Five-year-old “Lynne” has cerebral palsy. She lost her CHIP dental coverage and has many untreated cavities. When her mouth swelled from new teeth growing in, her family couldn’t afford to take her to the dentist. Lynne’s mother washed her mouth out with baking soda to reduce the swelling and used Tylenol to reduce the infection.
• A working mother in Fort Worth whose son lost CHIP coverage couldn’t afford to get him a needed root canal and crown. Six months later he had to have the tooth extracted for lack of treatment.
• Janice Vasquez’s story was profiled in the Houston Chronicle. Her husband makes about $550 every week delivering linens and often works overtime, but his job doesn’t provide health insurance. Their 2-year-old daughter Vivian was enrolled in CHIP. So when Vivian was hospitalized for a week for serious pneumonia and some of her medications cost $100 each, her family was able to get them. No longer. Because of the new way income is being calculated, the Vasquez family income now is $37 a month more than is allowable to qualify for CHIP, and they can’t afford the $500 to $600 a month it would cost to pay for private health insurance — that’s an entire paycheck. Janice doesn’t know what she’s going to do if Vivian has a relapse.
These families should never face these dilemmas in the wealthiest nation on earth. The Children’s Defense Fund is leading the Campaign to Restore CHIP in Texas, a coalition of 230 organizations and 2,000 individuals. We need to hold politicians accountable for supporting children’s needs — and make sure more of our children are receiving the care they need to stay healthy, not fewer. America’s children and families deserve much better.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund, www.childrensdefense.org.