BALTIMORE - The good news is that Maryland is doing a lot better than many other states in the percentage of our children, from birth to age 18, who have health insurance - 94 percent, compared with a national rate of 89 percent.
The bad news is that 76,800 children in Maryland are uninsured.
And the tragic news is that about 35,000 of these children could have free or low-cost health insurance right now if their parents or guardians would only sign them up.
Maryland has made enormous strides in the last few years in taking advantage of new public programs to expand health insurance coverage.
In 1998, when the state instituted the Maryland Children's Health Program, authorities estimated that about 60,000 children would enroll within the first three years. Through the efforts of state and local public health workers, advocacy groups and the Maryland Covering Kids Campaign funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and coordinated by the University of Maryland, Baltimore, more than 90,000 children were identified and enrolled.
About a year ago, Maryland expanded its program to cover uninsured children in families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $50,000 for a family of four, potentially extending coverage to another 25,000 children. That's a terrific investment, since children who lack health insurance don't get preventive care, tend to see doctors only when their ailments have progressed to a very serious stage, and are much more likely to miss out on school and on extra-curricular activities, such as athletics programs, that require physicals to participate.
While Maryland has made important advances on children's coverage, and has provided some prescription drug assistance to some of the elderly, far too many hard-working parents still can't get affordable health insurance. Contractual employees without health benefits, laid-off workers who can't afford COBRA (and most can't), adults with pre-existing and serious medical conditions who can't get insurance coverage: The stories are heart-rending. This is a national disgrace, and we ought not to accept this.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has renewed its support for maximizing access to health insurance through a new grant program called Covering Kids and Families. Beginning today, a coalition of state and local agencies, business people and foundations will use its new grant to help find those remaining 35,000 uninsured but eligible Maryland children, and to make sure that children already being served continue to stay enrolled.
Across the country - although not yet in Maryland - states are expanding their children's public health insurance programs to cover uninsured parents. I'm delighted by this development.
As is true in Maryland, our medical schools and affiliated hospitals tend to be located in urban areas where many of the working poor lack insurance, and our emergency rooms become the providers of last resort when their health problems become too serious to be ignored. This is societal folly, and the costs in human and economic terms are borne by all of us.
If our nation is really serious about defending and protecting our quality of life, it might well begin by making access to affordable and timely health care part of every American's birthright.
David J. Ramsay is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and chairman of the Maryland Covering Kids Coalition.