The End of an Unfortunate Era for Health Care

By Beacon Staff

This month, Montanans embark on the beginning of the end of an unfortunate era. Montana and five other states here in the Rockies have had the highest percentage of uninsured children in America. Starting this month and for the first time, we are going to assure health care coverage to the children of this state’s middle-income workers. The effort is called the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and Montanans are hopeful that other western states will follow our lead or, better yet, the U.S. Congress will enact health care for all.

Almost unbelievably, here in the Rockies, working families with children – not welfare but working families – suffer the worst health care coverage in the world, unless, of course, we want to compare ourselves with poverty-ridden, war-torn, ungovernable disaster zones around the world.

The effort to insure these children began more than 10 years ago under the insistence of Montana’s then State Auditor Mark O’Keefe. In 2008 another of our state’s elected officials, John Morrison, provided the aggressive leadership necessary to put the issue on last November’s ballot. Montanans voted by a margin of more than two-to-one to end this disgrace and to provide insurance for our children.

Both pride and disclosure require that I credit my wife, state Sen. Carol Williams, with the tenacity to assure this year’s Legislature carried out the voters’ will by passing, over the objection of conservatives, an appropriation of $44 million of existing revenue (no tax increase). That money, starting now, carries out that voter initiative which received such overwhelming support, including that of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The current insurance mess here in Montana and throughout the Rocky Mountains is stifling the economy of the West: drained savings accounts, lost mortgages, hospital closures in our rural areas, overly burdensome insurance premiums, lost productivity and enormously costly private insurance company red tape.

A nationwide study by the prestigious National Institute of Medicine concluded that uninsured children are considerably more likely to go without immunization, have far less access to basic primary care, use hospital emergency rooms more often, and miss more school days due to sickness. A report by the Commonwealth Fund shows that lower income students without health care coverage suffer low cognitive, social, and emotional development. No state, including here in the Rocky Mountain West, can afford to lose the potential of our young people. Insuring families, and particularly our kids, is not only a matter of principle, family value, and national character, but it has also become an economic imperative.

Due to the otherwise healthy influence of this region’s preponderance of small businesses, a very large percentage of working families do not have employer-provided insurance. Nationally, 4 percent of people pay all of their own health insurance, but here in the states of the Rocky Mountain West that number is almost 8 percent. And, the longer we wait, the worse it gets; the rising cost of health care, and thus insurance, is causing significant erosion in the proportion of western working families able to obtain coverage through an employer.

Most states here in the Rockies have not done nearly enough to extend and improve health care for our kids, and yet the SCHIP program is tailor-made for our Rocky Mountain values. Sponsored a decade ago by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Utah’s Sen. Orin Hatch, SCHIP is not a mandate, combines both state and federal effort, encourages states to define the program’s funding and administration, and it only benefits the children of those people who get up each morning and go to work.

We must not permit the financial inequities of limited health care coverage to strangle our hopes for economic progress including good paying jobs with adequate benefits and, perhaps most important of all, health care coverage for our children.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. He now teaches at The University of Montana.

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