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Keep Health Choice Open

Today we released a Legislative Bulletin on the importance of the Health Choice program. Health Choice extends affordable insurance to children in families earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase private coverage.

Here is an excerpt:

We know what will happen if Health Choice is closed to new enrollments in the current budget. North Carolina instituted a similar enrollment freeze from January 2001 to October 2001, and the results of that brief, nine-month cap were devastating.

In six months, enrollment in Health Choice dropped from 72,024 in January 2001 to 59,472 in June 2001, according to the NC Institute of Medicine. Because of the steep enrollment declines Health Choice partially reopened in July 2001, but participation in the program continued to drop for another four months until it reached a low of 51,294 in October 2001. North Carolina and health advocates across the state have spent considerable time and resources on outreach to parents who qualify for Health Choice.

Once the program is capped this work is undermined. Word travels fast that the program is not accepting new applicants and enrollment plummets.

After the 2001 freeze the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured worked with the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC – Chapel Hill to conduct focus groups of parents who attempted to obtain insurance for their children but were frustrated by the Health Choice cap. Almost all of the children affected by the freeze needed medical care while they were stuck on the waiting list, according to a report on the focus-group results by the NC Institute of Medicine.

Parents reported that their children suffered everything from bronchitis and influenza to asthma and life-threatening infections. Parents able to obtain care often incurred large medical bills and encountered significant delays. According to an NC Institute of Medicine report: “Many families tried to obtain other health insurance coverage for their children during the enrollment freeze, but most were unable to afford the monthly premium costs, even when it was available through their or their spouse’s employer.”

NC Health Choice is an essential program providing an important safety net for children. Health Choice uses generous federal matching funds to stimulate local economies. And we know that even a temporary freeze in enrollment will hurt access to medical care for thousands of children. We also know that enrollment will plunge even after Health Choice is reopened.

The House budget does not allocate enough for Health Choice to service its current population. Instead, legislators should look to the Governor for guidance. Gov. Perdue not only recommends maintaing Health Choice, she wants to expand the program during the economic downturn.

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