Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 10:22 am | Fair 54º

 
 
 
 

Local News

County Supervisors Give $1 Million for Health Insurance Program for Children, Including Undocumented

A decision to allocate $1 million to an insurance program that helps undocumented children receive health care was approved by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, but the split vote illustrated the policy divide that often pops up between representatives of North County and South Coast districts.

The supervisors were asked to approve funding for the Children's Health Initiative, which provides coverage for children who do not qualify for other federal or state insurance programs and who don't meet certain income requirements.

People who are undocumented, including children, do not qualify for Affordable Care Act coverage or Medi-Cal, and the Children's Health Initiative seeks to give children coverage who may not qualify for any other type of insurance.

The board was divided on the item, with supervisors Salud Carbajal, Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf voting yes on the item, and Steve Lavagnino and Peter Adam voting no, with no discussion.

Forty-five percent of children covered by the program live in the North County, which includes Lavagnino's district.  

Lavagnino acknowledged that his district has more undocumented children than any other.

"However, one of my main pillars during my campaign was to make sure taxpayer-funded benefits are for legal residents only," he said.

Lavagnino said he voted against the Children's Health Initiative "because I don't believe most taxpayers understand that they have been paying $1 million a year to provide health insurance for undocumented children in Santa Barbara County."

He noted that the county already provides free health care at county clinics regardless of immigration status.

"This million dollars comes directly from the General Fund and is simply for insurance," he said, adding that the cause should by championed by a nonprofit agency, religious group or charitable organization, but not by the county.

An official from Adam's office said the supervisor had qualms with taking $1 million of General Fund monies for a social program when items such as infrastructure and pension liabilities did not have adequate funding.

The program dates back to the beginning of the previous decade, when the county discovered it had the highest numbers of uninsured children in the state.

In 2001, the county recorded 16.5 percent of children as having no insurance. Now, it is among the lowest in the state, with less than 1 percent of children uninsured, according to Tara Dooley, program manager of the Children's Health Initiative.

Still, the program has about 1,000 children on its waiting list.

To qualify, children must be a part of families making less than $72,000 a year for a family of four. They also cannot quality for ACA-type insurance or Medi-Cal.

Ninety-one percent of the kids in the program are part of families who make less than $48,500 for a family of four, Dooley said. 

"All of these families are hardworking and most are in North County," she said, with many working for agricultural companies.

The supervisors began the program in 2006, with major supporters including First District Supervisor Carbajal and Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, political opposites who came together to support the children's outreach.

Dooley said the Centeno had seen the poor health of many of the children living in mobile homes in Cuyama and chose to support the program.

Carbajal said Wednesday that he was proud of the effort he and Centeno had made to provide funding to the initiative.

The program improves the lives of community children by providing them preventive health care, a more cost-effective option than relying on emergency room care, he said.

"The fact that the number of uninsured children in our county has gone from over 16,000 to roughly 2,000 in the past 10 years highlights a major change that has resulted in children living healthier lives and missing fewer days of school,” he said.

Whether the responsibility is on the government to pay for care or whether it should fall to nonprofit or other community entities is up for debate.

Dooley said the answer to that question statewide seems to indicate it's a governmental solution. She cited the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voting unanimously last week for a trial program providing access to health care for undocumented residents of the county.

On a state level, Senate Bill 4 was also approved earlier this month in the Senate, and would cover all children in Medi-Cal regardless of immigration status. The state Assembly has yet to approve the bill.

Even without SB-4, Dooley said, most of the children in the county's program are older and aging out, and younger children are not taking their places because most are born in the U.S.

"There's just not the immigration happening," she said.

Insurance for children ages 6 to 18 costs the county $113 a month, which covers emergency care, dental, vision, primary care, and even psychiatric care, and parents must pay a premium that ranges from $5 to $21 per child.

When people not enrolled in the program seek emergency care that they can't pay for, "somebody's paying for it," she said.

Dooley also acknowledged that clinics have limited resources with which to provide free care, and noted that people will postpone care if they can't afford it.

She said that a quarter of families in the program say they postponed their child's care because of inability to pay. 

Nearly a quarter of parents with uninsured children utilized the Emergency Department for their children’s care before being enrolled in the Children's Health Initiative, and children who became insured showed a dramatic decrease of emergency care over the subsequent years.

"It's heartbreaking when you think of what that would mean to a parent," she said. "Do we want children to suffer? That's the bottom line."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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