Next to Medicaid, Denali KidCare is the best means of providing medical care to Alaskan children. For more than 10 years, this program has assisted families whose income is just above poverty and whose children are therefore ineligible for Medicaid. The program covers teens through age 18 and also pregnant women.
There are two bills before the Alaskan Legislature to make Denali KidCare available to more families. SB 13, sponsored by Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, raises the eligibility level from 175 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. It passed the Senate and on March 19th received a do pass from the Health and Social Services Committee; and was referred to Finance Committee. The bill has picked up six more cross-sponsors this year.
SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, also raises the eligibility level to 200 percent, and adds a premium option after 200 percent. This bill has not passed the Senate and has not received further consideration in 2010.
Currently about 7,500 children are covered by Denali KidCare in Alaska and the cost per child of providing this coverage is about $1,300 per year. The state spent $25.9 million, of which $18.2 million was paid by the federal government. These figures are from fiscal year 2006. The federal government reimburses the state for 66 percent of its costs up to the allocated funding level; and 50 percent above that level.
Alaska's eligibility rate is now 175 percent of the federal poverty guidelines which is one of the lowest program eligibility rates in the United States. 44 states allow participation by families at or above 200 percent of the FPL, and 19 have rates at or above 300 percent.
The reason for covering pregnant women is to provide prenatal care; and thereby reduce the infant mortality rate. Alaska's infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the United States. One of the reasons for infant mortality is the lack of prenatal care. Therefore, providing prenatal care through Denali KidCare will reduce the infant mortality rate.
One reason for covering children at a higher income level is to reduce the number of children who are uninsured for health care. This number has risen dramatically over the last ten years. Alaska's uninsured children are estimated to be 19,638 or 10 percent of our 18 and under population. These children are mostly from working families.
There are many reasons to pass this legislation, but the best one is to provide early medical care and thereby prevent the need for more costly care in the future. In the area of mental health alone, early counseling could prevent the later need for more costly and extensive long term care. There is no clear data to support this argument; however, those who work in social services know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. SB13 should be passed this term.
Russell LaVigne Jr. is a Juneau resident and member of Governor's Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.