Overall, 7.8 million children were without health insurance at some point last year, a drop of 1.8 million in just three years. Researchers credit increased enrollment in Medicaid, which provides health care for the poorest families and children, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, created in 1997 for children from working poor families.
At the same time, private coverage declined. Between 1999 and 2002, a total of 2 million fewer children received health insurance from private insurers as more companies dropped benefits for workers and their families.
The data come from a large survey of some 40,000 families conducted periodically by the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism Project. The survey was being released Thursday by the Covering Kids and Families project, which is beginning its annual effort to sign more children up for public programs.
Both the survey and the Covering Kids program are funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a charitable organization that funds many projects related to health care.
The portion of black and Hispanic children without insurance remained higher than the rate for white children, although improvement was more marked among blacks and Hispanics than for whites. Medicaid and SCHIP now provide health insurance for more than one-third of all black and Hispanic children.
About half of the uninsured children - some 4 million - appear to be eligible for one of these two programs. Absent insurance, these children were three times more likely to lack a usual source of medical care than those covered by government programs.
The good news, researchers said, was an increased awareness among low-income parents about SCHIP. In 1999, 47 percent of these parents had heard of it. That climbed to 71 percent in 2002. The portion of families that understand that nonwelfare families are eligible for the health coverage increased, but 43 percent of those having heard of SCHIP wrongly believed they had to be on welfare to qualify.
By Laura Meckler