Universal Child Health Care Expected to Pass in Hawaii

May 9, 2007

Hawaii will become the first state in the nation to offer universal health care to every child under a measure headed for final passage on the last day of the state legislative session. The state is the only in the nation to require all employers to provide health insurance to their employees.

The child healthcare proposal already given preliminary approval by both houses aims to cover every child from birth to 18 years old who doesn’t already have health insurance — mostly immigrants and members of lower-income families.

Lawmakers say they believe Gov. Linda Lingle will sign it into law.

“No one should be afraid that they can’t afford health insurance for their child. We’ve taken care of it,” said Rep. Josh Green, D-Keauhou-Honokohau, a Big Island doctor. “If any child is in Hawaii, they’re going to qualify.”

While it’s difficult to determine how many children lack health coverage in the islands, estimates range from 3,500 to 16,000 in a state of about 1.3 million people.

The plan gives care for newborns of uninsured mothers, children who don’t already qualify for state and Medicaid plans, and children of immigrants.

The proposal provides for immunizations, mental health treatment, hospital stays, X-rays, antibiotics, oral contraceptives and dental services with low copay amounts.

“There will be options for all parents and guardians to enroll their children in a health insurance program,”” said Barbara Luksch, project director for Hawaii Covering Kids, which finds, enrolls and retains children in insurance programs.

Universal health care would start as a three-year pilot program that could be renewed if successful. Its cost is estimated at $3.5 million for the first 18 months, and $2 million per year afterward.

Some of the costs will be shared by Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state’s biggest health insurer, which will enroll the children into its Keiki Care (child care) program, which is free except for copays of about $7 per office visit.

“Hopefully we will be able to provide free health insurance to those children who do not currently have access to health insurance,” said Cliff Cisco, HMSA senior vice president.

A similar universal child health care proposal passed both houses of the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Lingle based on concerns that some parents might drop more extensive coverage to sign up for the basic but premium-free plan.

That problem has been resolved by specifying which program children qualify for, and Green said he anticipates Lingle will sign the bill into law because he has worked closely with her advisers in shaping it.

A Lingle spokesman said she will examine the bill once it’s passed and make a decision within 45 days.

The Legislature has wanted to make child health care a priority for more than 15 years, but lean budgets in the 90s kept them from being able to fund it, said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-Kalihi-Liliha, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Health.

“We are in a position where we can provide the kinds of services we wanted for so many years,” Chun Oakland said.

The cost for each child is estimated at $51 per month, according to HMSA. If additional funding is needed, Green said he would ask the government, HMSA and philanthropists for help.

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