The number of children without health insurance continued to fall in the first half of 2002, the government reported Tuesday, although 7.2 million children remain uninsured.
Government-financed programs were responsible for the drop in numbers of uninsured kids, as fewer children were covered by private employers.
People without health insurance are significantly less likely to get preventive care and aid when they are sick, the government says, and health policy experts have long put providing insurance for the uninsured at the top of their agenda. By having doctors through health insurance, people can avoid long waits and high costs in emergency rooms the uninsured often face.
Overall, 38.9 million people under age 65 were without health insurance from January to July, or 15.9 percent of the population, about the same as in 2002. People over age 65 are covered by Medicare.
As in past surveys, Hispanics were the ethnic group least likely to have coverage, with almost one in three uninsured. Just over 16 percent of blacks were uninsured. Whites were most likely to have insurance, with 10.5 percent uninsured.
Among all races, the number of uninsured children has dropped significantly since 1997, when the State Children's Health Insurance Program was created. The program is aimed at families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy insurance on their own.
Enrollment in the program, known as CHIP, reached 3.8 million early this year, an increase of 22 percent over 2001.
"More and more children are getting the health care they need, thanks in large measure to our success in working with states to expand health coverage," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.
Nationally, an estimated 8.2 million children were without health insurance at the start of 2002 — almost 11 percent of all children. In Arkansas, 12.4 percent of children are uninsured.
CHIP was created during the Clinton administration with bipartisan support in Congress. The Bush administration has not supported proposals to expand the program to cover more children or to add parents. Rather, the administration has proposed tax breaks to help people buy insurance in the private market.
Tuesday's survey, released by the National Center for Health Statistics, found that the portion of children being covered by private plans fell in the first six months of 2002. The portion of kids with private insurance dropped from 67.1 percent in 2001 to 64.5 percent in 2002.
At the same time, the portion of kids covered by public programs, including Medicaid and CHIP, jumped from 23.4 percent in 2001 to 27.2 percent in 2002. It had been at 21 percent in 1997.
Among children, 9.8 percent were uninsured in the first half of 2002, down from 10.8 percent in 2001 and far down from 13.9 percent in 1997.
Experts fear the uninsured numbers could rise again as states face severe budget crunches. In Kansas, for instance, the CHIP program, called HealthWave, is increasing premiums. People who now pay $10 per month will have to pay $30, and $15 premiums will jump to $45.
The increases are expected to affect about 5,800 families, and state officials predict about 2,950 children could drop out of the program, said Caleb Asher, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
"We are in such an economic hardship in the state," he said. "It's becoming more real to folks."
The data released Tuesday, which cover January to June 2002, are preliminary figures that may be adjusted in the future.
The survey also found: