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The state of Minnesota is expanding health care coverage to thousands of uninsured children.
The new initiative, first approved by the Legislature in 2009 and finally implemented this month, will erase barriers such as waiting periods and monthly insurance premium payments for some 16,000 children from lower-income families across the state.
Gloria Agbator wept when she heard the news.
A single working mother, Agbator has health insurance for herself through her job, but she cannot afford the monthly premiums needed to include her three children on the plan.
"I'm really happy about it," said Agbator, who is battling pneumonia right now and is worried that her children -- a 13-year-old and 9-year-old twins -- will get sick, too. "I was so scared for my kids. ... This program is going to be a really good blessing to my family."
The health care expansion is targeted to working families such as Agbator's, who make between 150 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level. Agbator, a program manager for a group home in Dakota County, had been worried about how she would afford her children's back-to-school checkups and vaccinations when she got news of the program change.
"I'm crying, but I'm happy," she said. "I work full time, but I can't afford to pay for my children's health insurance."
State officials estimates that 71,000 Minnesota children lack health coverage.
"No law or insurance policy should stand between children in need and health care," Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said as she announced the changes in a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday. "The legislative changes that the Department of Human Services has implemented will remove unnecessary barriers blocking access to care and will result in healthier lives for over 16,000 children."
The changes eliminate the four-month waiting period previously required and will make every child younger than 18 eligible for MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized insurance program for working families. Children from families below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($30,264 a year for a household of two and $46,104 a year for a household of four) will be eligible for MinnesotaCare without premiums.
"These are families that ... are picking between child care and health care and food, and food and energy and utilities," said Elaine Cunningham, outreach director for the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota.
Uninsured keeps rising
Minnesota has long had a low rate of uninsured, but even so 415,000 Minnesotans lacked health insurance in 2011, and state records show that the rate of charity care at hospitals has increased steadily over the past decade. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, such uncompensated care rose to $311 million in 2010, the highest in state history. Of the total uninsured, 17 percent are younger than 18.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, on Thursday called that number "unacceptable and un-Minnesotan" as he stood with Jesson.
Thissen noted that Minnesota, known for having some of the strongest children's health programs in the country, recently slipped from second to fifth-best in the nation, according to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It is the first time in the past 10 years that Minnesota has ranked lower than third. The report also found that Minnesota was the only state in the country where the number of children covered by health insurance had fallen. Its data show that 7 percent of all Minnesota children have no health coverage.
"That trend has been going in the wrong direction, so I'm glad we could stand here today and talk about moving forward on something and providing coverage to kids so they can get the care they need to stay healthy," Thissen said.
A compromise plan
"I think it's sensible, bipartisan change," said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who leads the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. The $11 million price tag for expanded health care was a compromise between more expansive and expensive proposals, he said. "In our world [$11 million] is a relatively small cost" for children's health care, Abeler said.
Before the changes, a family of four making less than $46,000 would have had to pay premiums of up to $70 per child, depending on their income, to enroll in MinnesotaCare.
The reforms lift those premiums and expand the program to families that previously were ineligible. That includes Agbator, whose children would once have been considered ineligible because she has a health care plan at work, even though it's one she can't afford.
The state has tried before to cover Minnesota's uninsured children. A bill passed in 2007 was supposed to have covered all children by 2011. The number of uninsured children at the time was also estimated at 70,000.
Thissen, who sponsored the 2009 legislation, said the MinnesotaCare adjustments will provide an option for families until provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act are fully implemented in 2019. The state law is not part of the federal overhaul. Jesson said the expanded coverage will cost $11 million a year when fully implemented, with the federal government paying half. The state's share is already part of projected expenses.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049