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Advocates: ‘glitches’ keep Massachusetts kids uninsured

Johanna Kaiser

Forgotten paperwork, returned mail, and a lack of information are keeping thousands of Massachusetts children from receiving stable health care coverage in a state known for its far-reaching health care initiative.

Although Massachusetts has the highest rate of insured children in the county – more than 99 percent health care advocates and lawmakers say thousands of eligible children still go on and off the state’s Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, during the year because of administrative issues and other paperwork problems.

“Often times children were insured but got knocked off because of re-enrollment glitches,” said Victoria Bonney of Health Care for All, a non-profit organization that advocates for changes to the state’s health care laws.

The organization estimates that about 3,000 children are uninsured at some point during the course of a year.

The “glitches” can include everything from parents forgetting to renew their insurance plan on time to neglecting to inform MassHealth of a new address.

Because many of these families remain financially eligible for MassHealth, many re-enroll within a short time, leading to unnecessary administrative costs, advocates said.

Each enrollment or re-enrollment costs the state approximately $200.

Health Care for All and 66 other organizations are working to prevent these re-enrollments by leaving postcards with information and important phone numbers at community centers and schools. Groups are also handing out bookmarks and magnets that have deadlines for paperwork and phone numbers for information.

“Every day when you reach in for the milk, there’s simple reminder,” Bonney said.

The organizations just finished a month-long drive to register as many children as possible for health coverage. Numbers will be released this week when the groups highlight their efforts at a Statehouse event.

Lawmakers are also pushing to ensure that children remain insured.

A bill designed to reduce costs and keep children on health care plans takes aim at the administrative snafus.

“This is a very significant problem. There are a number of ways child can fall through gaps,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who is co-sponsoring the measure that would allow eligible children to stay on state health insurance for a continuous 12-month period after they apply.

Under his bill, Eldridge said there would be “an automatic presumption that once they apply, they are covered for 12 months.”

If a parent forgets to file a particular form, or gets a temporary job, the child would not be immediately taken off MassHealth only to re-enroll a short time later, under the proposal.

Similar laws are in place in 32 other states.

Patrick Michaud, spokesman for Harbor Health Services, said his group has enrolled many uninsured children whose parents did not know they were eligible for state health insurance programs. Harbor Health Services is one of the organizations working with Health Care for All to ensure as many children as possible are covered.

“Their parents were unemployed because of the economic downturn and they weren’t aware they had the option,” Michaud said.

Others were the children of immigrants who had green cards for less than five years. They qualified for MassHealth, even though their parents did not.

Enrollment in health care plans in Massachusetts has soared since the state passed its landmark 2006 health care law.

The Massachusetts initiative, which became a model for the national health care law signed by President Barack Obama, requires nearly everyone in the state to have health insurance or face financial penalties.

Associated Press