State health officials Wednesday said they've launched a full-court press to sign up as many as 29,000 uninsured Montana children for government-funded health coverage, under the voter-approved Healthy Montana Kids program.
The program, overwhelmingly approved by Montana voters last year, expands the eligibility for two government programs that already exist: Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP).
As of next Thursday, the programs are open to any family 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, for a family of four, $55,125 is 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
The state has hired outreach directors in Billings and Missoula to help the push for eligible children to sign onto the program, and has enlisted the help of schools, public health clinics, physicians, other health-care providers and Indian tribes.
About 70,000 kids from low- and moderate-income families in Montana already have health coverage through CHIP and Medicaid. The expansion, when fully in place, should mean health coverage for nearly 100,000 kids, said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"What a wonderful thing for the state of Montana to have 100,000 kids covered by health insurance," she said at a news conference held outside the Cooperative Health Center in Helena.
Whiting Sorrell said signing up 29,000 additional children will take some time, but that the state is pushing to get as many kids signed up as possible. She wouldn't estimate how long it might take to fill all the available slots.
Whiting Sorrell and other state health officials plan to travel the state in the coming weeks to publicize the program, with stops this week and next in Billings, Miles City, Sidney, Glendive, Crow Agency, Lame Deer, Great Falls and Havre. A stop in Missoula is planned in early October.
The state also plans a media blitz starting next month, with billboards, broadcast and newspaper advertising, and has printed up 100,000 informational cards that have been or will be distributed by schools.
Families who believe their kids are eligible can sign up on line, at www.hmk.mt.gov, call the state at 1-877-543-7669, or get applications at places like physician and dentist offices, schools, Job Service centers, local health departments and tribal health offices.
Jackie Forba, program manager for Healthy Montana Kids, said the state also sent letters to 1,100 families who had applied earlier but been rejected because they earned too much money. The expansion increases the income ceiling from 175 percent to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, so many of those families may now be eligible, she said.
"What we want to do is get the word out, as much as we can," she said.
State officials kicked off their campaign Wednesday at a news conference in front of Helena's Cooperative Health Center, a clinic that serves about 6,000 customers a year - many of them without health insurance.
The clinic charges only $10 a visit for customers who can't afford to pay more, and expanding coverage for thousands of children from lower-income families will not only encourage them to seek health care but also help the finances of public health clinics statewide, said the clinic Executive Director Kate McIvor.
Healthy Montana Kids offers free insurance coverage for those who are eligible, yet beneficiaries have small co-payments for visits to the doctor or hospital.
Healthy Montana Kids was enacted by Montana voters when they approved Initiative 155 last year, with 70 percent in favor. The 2009 Legislature approved the state's share of funding for the program. The federal government will cover anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of the overall costs.