Budget Crisis Threatens Children's Health Insurance

Monterey Bay Area – Three year-old Jeovanni and his nine year-old brother Hugo are constructing a train out of old cardboard boxes in their living room, as their baby brother sleeps. The boys' parents, Jason and Francisca Fuller, watch from the kitchen table, enjoying the relative calm of this Saturday morning. "Basically Francis is a single mom during the week cause I'm working, I'm barely here. I see her on the weekends and maybe one or two evenings in the week. That's how crazy it is," says Jason.

Jason works two jobs, as an electronic assembler and a janitor, while Francisca works at a daycare. Together the Fullers make enough to pay the mortgage on their Scotts Valley condo and keep the family fed, but it's not enough to cover the cost of adding their children to their employer provided health care plans. And private health insurance is out of the question. "As a parent, the most important thing is taking care of our kids, you know. What are we going to do? Go homeless just in order to buy healthcare. It's not going to happen. You gotta be realistic," says Jason.

Fortunately, the Fullers qualify for the state-run Healthy Families program that provides health, dental, and vision insurance to children. It's for families that make too little to pay for their own insurance, but too much to qualify for free Medi-Cal. A family like the Fullers can make up to $64,000 a year, and pay at most $72 a month for insurance.
"I can just sleep better because I know if anything happens tomorrow they have insurance and I'm able to take them to the doctor," says Francisca.

But that could soon change. Healthy Families is on the chopping block in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget for the next fiscal year. In January, he outlined cuts meant to help cover a nearly $20-billion deficit. "I know many of these cuts are painful, believe me. These are the hardest decision a governor must make. Yet there's simply no conceivable way to avoid more cuts and more pain," says Governor Schwarzenegger. The governor's plan eliminates the Healthy Families vision benefit and reduces eligibility. He's also threatening to scrap the program altogether if the federal government doesn't chip in an extra $6.9-billion next year. So at best, the cuts would leave almost 6,000 kids in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties without insurance. At worst, if the entire program is cut, 27,000 local children would lose their insurance.

"I think we have to brace ourselves for what might be a very negative consequence for many families in the Monterey Bay region," says Alan McKay, executive director of the Central California Alliance for Health, the non-profit that administers Healthy Families on the central coast.

McKay recognizes the state is in a financial crisis, but says he can't imagine anyone really wanting to cut children's health insurance. "Children, at best, are relatively healthy, but they do encounter risks of even chronic disease at a very young age and so diseases such as diabetes or asthma need to be identified early on and treated or else they'll decline the person's health and they end up suffering more than they should and it's actually more costly," says McKay. He adds regular check-ups lead to better performance at school. For example, health insurance can make the difference to a child struggling to see the white board at the front of the classroom or trying to complete a complicated homework assignment with the distracting pain of a cavity.

Back at the Fuller house, Jason and Francisca know Healthy Families might not always be an option. They worry about what that means for their rambunctious boys, especially Jeovanni, who they call their little daredevil.
"He loves skateboarding and that's a big thing. That's why we need to have health insurance," says Francisca. Jason says he's looking for odd jobs on the weekend so the family can build an emergency fund in case they lose Healthy Families. That means there will be fewer Saturdays like this one where the Fullers can enjoy being a family together.

State lawmakers aren't expected to vote on proposed cuts to social services until May, after the Governor unveils his revised budget. The final budget deadline is June 15th but in recent years it's been late by several months.