As many as 100,000 to 150,000 Chicago Public Schools students may be eligible for a new form of publicly funded health insurance but have not yet applied, according to Chicago Public Schools officials.
The Illinois Department of Public Aid has more conservative estimates over all for the number of children who may be eligible, but could not break out a recent figure for Chicago.
Called Illinois KidCare, the program is aimed at children whose family income is too high to qualify for Medicaid but low enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. For example, a family of three with an income of no more than $26,178 would qualify.
The insurance program is funded by the federal government and administered by the state. CPS is a partner in recruiting applicants and helping them fill out the forms. Board officials say that they have provided application assistance to parents of about 45,000 children since they launched their outreach campaign two years ago.
“You may offer children the best facilities and best equipped schools, but it makes no difference if the child has poor health,” observes Sue Gamm, who as CPS chief of specialized services oversees KidCare outreach efforts in the district.
KidCare insurance provides varying levels of coverage, depending on family income and other factors. Full coverage includes doctor visits, dental care, well-child visits, prenatal care, specialty medical services, hospital care, emergency services and prescription drugs.
CPS has taken a wide variety of steps to attract applicants, including creating a district hotline and four regional walk-in help centers, training 1,200 school employees to help with applications, and providing promotional information during report card pick-up and at other school events. A year ago, it sent applications home with 350,000 children.
Parents are required to disclose personal information, particularly family income, and that has been a stumbling block. CPS reports that, on average, outreach workers have had to make four attempts to reach family members to fill in missing information. Then, about 20 percent of parents withdraw their applications because they are reluctant to provide it, officials add.
Some immigrant parents fear that information they disclose could be used against them later, school officials say.
Filling out the forms “could be scary to someone who doesn’t speak the language,” says Miguel Velazquez, principal of Whitney Elementary School, where more than half of the parents are not fluent English speakers. Velazquez reports that KidCare enrollment has been poor, but he anticipates improvement now that a KidCare coordinator has been designated at the school.
At Washington High School, trained bilingual staff help parents fill out the forms. As a result, parent participation is high, says Principal Juana Rivera. It’s the wait for state approval–up to two months–that concerns her. “We have no way to follow up,” she says, adding that parents are left guessing as to whether they’ve been accepted.
Rivera thinks schools should be allowed to process the forms themselves rather than have to send them to the state. CPS could assign specialists per region to focus on KidCare enrollment, she adds.
Grassroots Collaborative, a group critical of KidCare policies, suggests that children on public aid be enrolled automatically in KidCare. This, they argue, would make health insurance available earlier, even though parents would still have to fill out applications eventually.
That would have helped Carla West, a single mother from North Lawndale who assumed she would not qualify because she already was receiving Medicaid benefits. Her public aid office never told her about KidCare, not even when she turned to it for assistance with prenatal care bills. West learned by chance through a co-worker that she may be eligible and called the CPS hotline to apply.
Gamm agrees that the process could be simplified. CPS is proposing that the state verify income through information it already has rather than require applicants to submit check stubs.
Jane Longo, KidCare bureau chief at the Illinois Department Of Public Aid, estimates that 190,000 children are eligible statewide and says that about 109,000, or 57 percent, have been enrolled.
Other states have done better. For example, Georgia has enrolled over 70 percent of its 143,000 eligible children. Its outreach campaign includes television and radio advertising, as well as partnerships with hospitals and department stores, according to the PeachCare website. Last fall, PeachCare staffers were at 90 Kmart stores registering parents who were doing back-school shopping.
For more information
Chicago Public Schools
Illinois Department of Public Aid
CPS drop-in centers
Sites for regions 1 and 2 not yet established.