Affordable health care is beyond reach for many Maine families. Climbing costs mean that even parents with employer-sponsored insurance can no longer afford their share of premiums and co-pays. The numbers are shocking — nationally, families with employer plans have seen health care costs rise by 67 percent in the last decade, while wages grew by just 31 percent.

The cost of health coverage forces some families to go without insurance. A sick or injured child can lead to medical debt that causes severe financial hardship or even bankruptcy for a family. Children without insurance also have problems getting health care. Often they don’t have a regular doctor, miss important health screenings and preventative care, and have to postpone or go without treatment when they are sick or hurt because it’s just too expensive. Research shows uninsured children do not receive the same level of care as others and have a higher risk for missed diagnoses of serious health conditions.

Maine’s rate of uninsured children is more than double the rate in our neighboring states of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Over the last two years, we’ve seen a worrying national trend toward even more children losing health insurance. Loss of insurance has hit children under 6 especially hard. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to provide affordable health insurance to more Maine families and reduce the number of kids in our state who are going without care.

Why does Maine have so many uninsured children? One piece of the puzzle is Maine’s CHIP law. The Children’s Health Insurance Program is a popular and bipartisan program that uses federal funds to provide health coverage to children. It costs Maine about $700 per year to enroll a child in CHIP, and leverages over $2,000 per child in federal funds to keep Maine kids healthy. Federal funds will cover children with family incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Currently, Maine’s CHIP law allows only children with family incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to have CHIP insurance. For a single parent raising one child, that’s $33,820 a year. But the high cost of health insurance puts affordable care out of reach of many working parents earning more than that.

New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have lower rates of uninsured kids because their CHIP laws cover all children eligible under the federal program. It’s time for Maine to catch up. That’s why I introduced a bill last legislative session, L.D. 1539, An Act To Provide Maine Children Access to Affordable Health Care. In addition to raising CHIP eligibility to 300 percent, L.D. 1539 would repeal two barriers to CHIP insurance: parent premiums and long waiting periods. The bill would also create an outreach program to enroll uninsured children who are eligible for CHIP. After receiving bipartisan support from the Maine House and Senate last year, the bill is currently awaiting appropriations.

Children insured by CHIP receive excellent health coverage, including vision, hearing and dental care. What’s more, CHIP leads to better educational outcomes at the K-12 and college levels. Teens covered by CHIP have lower rates of eating disorders, drinking and mortality. In addition, CHIP coverage in childhood produces heath and economic benefits in adulthood. For families, CHIP coverage decreases the probability of medical debt, shielding children from poverty and reducing their exposure to adverse childhood experiences.

Maine’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens, our children, are bearing the brunt of the rising cost of health care. There are many ways to make health care more accessible for Mainers, and raising CHIP eligibility is an effective and affordable step Maine lawmakers can take as soon as we return to the State House in January. At that time, we’ll have the opportunity to bring much-needed coverage to Maine children and financial security to their families.

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