Federal health care program targets low-income children

Eduardo A. de Oliveira | 6/15/2010, 7:15 p.m.

According to Bob Johnson, executive director at the South End Center,  Massachusetts has covered 95 percent of its citizens. The remaining five percent are mostly children, immigrant kids and the homeless. In Boston, Johnson estimates, 15,000 Latino children are uninsured.

A lot of those children are considered by federal officials as “very hard to reach.” To remedy that, from January to April, the federal government awarded 59 grants of $304,385 to non-profits and medical institutions for a two-year outreach program.

Since January, non-profit Health Care for All, one of the only Massachusetts institutions awarded a federal grant, enrolled 222 kids in a state subsidized health insurance paid for by the CHIPRA program. Of those, the vast majority of new enrollees are Portuguese and Spanish speaking children.

Health Care for All had a key role in helping pass the Massachusetts Health Reform in 2006, and remains an important player in educating migrant families about their health choices. Currently the non-profit employees dozens of language interpreters to make it easier to navigate the local health system.

“The response has being very satisfactory. But mis-information is everywhere,” said Dayanne Leal, a program coordinator at Health Care for All. “Many parents didn’t even know the program existed. This is a government support that comes in a moment in people’s lives when they really need help while forming a family.”

Natalia Souza, a pregnant single mother of two girls, fits perfectly in the change signed into CHIPRA by President Obama. The original law, which was called SCHIP, signed by President Clinton, and expired in 2007, did not cover pregnant women.

“Now my girls can see their primary doctor regularly,” said Souza waiting for a pre-natal appointment at Nashua Community Health Center, in New Hampshire.  “And my baby will be taken care of,” she added while her 2-year-old girl held the tip of her skirt.

While the CHIPRA outreach program was launched at the South End Center, many immigrants are frightened to access any government service and shy away from any contact with government officials.

Even in Massachusetts, their fears are newly heightened by the national uproar over a new Arizonan law that gives police the power to question anybody’s immigration status on the streets if they “suspect the person is living in the state illegally.”

The national debate already made an impact on Carlos Medeiros, a father of two boys from Hartford, Conn., for whom fear is an influential component in the decision of accessing health care.

“I know the government can track us down, if it wants. The best way to stay safe is keeping away from any emergency room,” said Medeiros, who as an undocumented worker is ineligible to get subsidized health insurance in his state. Medeiros, a construction worker, did not know his two American sons were covered under CHIPRA.

“I’ll get informed about my kids’ health service before I put myself at risk,” he said with suspicion lingering.

Pawelec, of CMS, says that the participating health centers are a good place for outreach because parents can seek out their local health clinics inconspicuously.

“These professionals already know their community, they are only here to help … Their only goal here is to ensure their own community has health insurance … There’s nothing to fear here,” she said.

Pawelec also said she’s absolutely convinced CHIPRA will save federal dollars in the long-run.

“Making sure that a child stays healthy from birth, through school years and adolescence, is a way to prevent costly health interventions in the future. It’s a no brainer,” she concluded.