Program helps care for kids

Shirley Tuscano was pregnant and uninsured when she was first told by a doctor about San Mateo County’s Children Health Initiative, a program devoted to providing every child in the county with health care insurance.

She immediately signed up, and says it’s made a world of difference for her family. Her now 5-year-old son was diagnosed two years ago with autism, and since then he’s received hundreds of hours of therapy and medical care — all at a cost of $36 every three months.

Tuscano’s three children are among thousands of children in the county who are now insured because of the program, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. Before the program was implemented there were 17,000 children in the county who lacked health insurance, county officials said. Now, there are 3,000.

The program’s concept is simple: find uninsured children and insure them. To do this, the program’s 11 staff members and their nonprofit partners seek out families at clinics, malls, fairs — “wherever there are people,” explains Sara T. Mayer, director of health policy and planning for the county. They determine whether the families are eligible for federal or state insurance. If not, they’re enrolled in the county’s insurance program, the Healthy Kids program.

The whole process takes about half an hour, Mayer said.

A recent report by the Urban Institute evaluating the program’s effectiveness during the last five years cited several successes: Children enrolled in the program were 20 percent more likely to have recently received preventative care than they were before joining the program, and 41 percent more likely to have seen a dentist. Also, the children were 10 percent less likely to have missed days at school because of illness.

About half of the counties in the state have similar programs, but San Mateo County’s is distinctive in that it offers insurance to children in families up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line — an income of about $70,000 for a family of three, Mayer said. And unlike almost every other program in the state, San Mateo County’s doesn’t have a waiting list.

Tuscano said the program has been a godsend for her three children, especially her young son, because it’s unlikely she and her husband, who both work, could have afforded private insurance.

“It’s helped us a lot — he’s gotten speech therapy, behavior therapy, he’s gone to a nutritionist,” she said. “He’s in school now. He’s improving a lot.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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