Nevada officials say health program enrollment low

CARSON CITY (AP) - At a time when Nevada has the highest uninsured rate for children in the nation, enrollment is down in a state program that officials say could provide free medical care for some poor children.

A Census Bureau study released this week found that one of every five Nevada children lacks health insurance.

At the same time, state officials say enrollment in Nevada Check Up has dropped more than 10 percent from a year ago. Just 21,578 children were enrolled as of Wednesday, down 2,700 from September 2008.

"Part of the problem is people aren't aware of the program," said Elizabeth Aiello, deputy director of the state Division of Health Care Financing and Policy. "Also, a lot of people don't want to be involved in government programs."

The enrollment is nearly 50,000 less than the number Aiello's boss, Charles Duarte, estimated at legislative hearings in February would be eligible for free care.

The census study found about 120,000 Nevada children - or 20.2 percent of those under age 18 - now lack health insurance. The rate is more than double the national average of 9.9 percent.

Geoff Lawrence, an analyst with the conservative Nevada Public Research Institute in Las Vegas, said the three states with the highest uninsured rates have large Hispanic populations.

The Census Bureau study found that 30.7 percent of Hispanics in the United States last year were uninsured, the highest percentage for any ethnic group. Just over 25 percent of Nevadans are Hispanic.

For Nevadans of all ages, the uninsured rate in 2008 was 21.3 percent, third worst behind Texas and New Mexico. The national uninsured rate was 15.4 percent.

Although Nevada Check Up enrollment is down, a record 222,000 Nevadans of all ages are now enrolled in Medicaid, a $2.8 billion federal-state free health care program.

The Medicaid enrollment figure already is higher than what Duarte estimated for July 1, 2010, when the Legislature approved his budget in June. He said last week the state may need to find $37 million in additional revenue to cover higher Medicaid costs.

Under state regulations, children whose families are eligible for Medicaid must enroll in that program even if they have been Nevada Check Up participants. Children cannot be enrolled in Nevada Check Up if their family income is more than 200 percent of the federally determined poverty level - slightly more than $29,000 a year for a family of two. Medicaid has stricter requirements, generally no more than 100 percent of the poverty level.

Nancy Whitman, director of Nevada Covering Kids & Families, said Nevada traditionally has ranked poorly for insuring its children. The recession and record high unemployment have made it worse, she said.

"We are seeing a large number of people today who have never been without health care for their children," she said. "Now they are without a job and they don't know about Nevada Check Up or Medicaid."

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