Nonprofit campaign 100% Kids Coverage tries to replace ‘culture of fear’ with culture of coverage

Utah has a reputation as a child-friendly state, and it’s ranked No. 7 in child well-being in a recent report from a national nonprofit that focuses on children’s issues.

The state also has the most children per capita in the nation, with nearly a third of its population 18 years or younger, a segment that’s expected to continue to grow.

But one trend that’s going in the wrong direction is the percentage of Utah’s children that are covered by health insurance.

In 2017, 71,000 children lacked coverage, according to numbers from Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Voices for Utah Children, representing 7.3 percent of Utah’s kids. That was a 20 percent jump from 2016. In Summit County, 8.3 percent of kids 18 and younger were uninsured.

The non-partisan organization decided to do something about it, launching a statewide campaign in May in an attempt to boost the numbers of insured kids. The campaign, called 100% Kids Coverage, has about 30 endorsements from organizations around the state, including the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the Consulate of Mexico in Salt Lake City, Holy Cross Ministries and the Park City-based People’s Health Clinic.

Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a health policy fellow at Voices for Utah Children who’s spearheading the campaign, said it’s in the early stages of a multi-year process and is focused on gathering allies and supporters.

“We want to build that culture of 100 percent coverage here in our state, I don’t think we have it right now,” Alvarez Valle said. “We believe when we create an inclusive environment for kids in our state regardless of (immigration) status, it’ll help combat the fear that mixed-status families face.”

Eventually, she said, the organization hopes to push for legislation that will streamline the application process for state benefits and help families access medical care.

People’s Health Clinic director Beth Armstrong said the decision to endorse the campaign was a “no-brainer.” The People’s Health Clinic provides health care for uninsured residents of Summit and Wasatch counties.

“I love what they’re doing and, obviously, their purpose. … They sent me the white paper and I was in,” Armstrong said. “Children are the most vulnerable of all classes of people and the children of the underserved suffer the most due to nothing that they have control over. How do we not support them?”

Other goals of the campaign include increasing funding for outreach and enrollment efforts, opposing work requirements for Medicaid assistance and establishing a state program to help insure undocumented youth, something that a dozen states have or are working toward.

Children of Latino background make up 17 percent of Utah’s child population, according to a Voices for Utah Children report, but they represent more than 44 percent of the uninsured population.

Alvarez Valle said the “climate of fear” in immigrant communities has been exacerbated by federal government actions that have made families “apprehensive” about using federal aid programs to which they’re entitled, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicaid.

The majority of uninsured Utah kids would be covered by one of those programs, Alvarez Valle said, depending on how much money their parents make and their immigration status.

But families are now hesitant to enroll, and in fact some have pulled out of the programs, she said.

One rule change in particular has contributed to the fear and misinformation, Alvarez Valle said. The Trump administration proposed changing how the government defines a “public charge” to include things like whether the person would receive cash assistance from the government. If a person is found likely to become a public charge, he or she may be denied permanent resident status or admission to the country, according to the National Immigrant Law Center.

This would only affect the relatively small number of people coming to the country for the first time or those applying for permanent status, Alvarez Valle said, but the fallout has meant immigrant families are reluctant to use public assistance for fear it would increase the chance they’d run afoul of the federal government.

“We’ve heard anecdotally there are families who have disenrolled because they’re afraid of being a public charge,” Alvarez Valle said. She also pointed to the disruption caused when CHIP wasn’t renewed on time as contributing to the lowering enrollment numbers.

She said she’s been working with legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as nonprofits and immigrant families themselves.

“It is really difficult because especially within these last couple of years, there has been more fear for those families,” Alvarez Valle said. “Local organizations that work with immigrants daily have been able to combat those fears. … Programs like this — proactive approaches like this — also ease the fear.”


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