Advocates say NJ can achieve universal health care for kids

“What if I get really sick or hurt? What’s going to happen?” asked Juan Garcia, an unauthorized immigrant and member of Make the Road NJ. “I’m going to be in debt not only because of student loans, but debt to the hospital so it does make me worry, not only for myself but little kids.”

Garcia came to the United States about three years ago from Colombia. He’s still unauthorized, and that means he doesn’t have health insurance. When he was younger he remembers needing shots for school and his mom having to pay out of pocket.

“Something like $700 to $800. That was a lot because my mom doesn’t make that much money, so it was scary for us at the time,” said Garcia.

A new report from left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, or NJPP, found about 70,000 kids in New Jersey are uninsured and that about half of them are unauthorized immigrants who are not eligible for coverage.

The report says 12,000 of the children who are uninsured can no longer buy into New Jersey Family Care, the state’s publicly funded health insurance program, because they are in middle class families.

The remaining 23,000 are eligible for coverage but are not participating.

“The problem is, even though we have a high income eligibility level, a lot of children just aren’t categorically eligible,” said NJPP Director of Health Policy Ray Castro.

Castro says New Jersey can achieve universal health care for children if certain measures are implemented.

“We’re going to ask that legislation be enacted that makes undocumented children eligible for New Jersey Family Care. We’re going to ask that the state reinstate the buy-in program for middle class families, and we’re going to ask that the state remove all of those administrative barriers that are preventing children who are otherwise eligible from participating,” said Castro.

Castro says while roughly 97 percent of all children in the state are already insured, New Jersey still falls far behind other states in this area.

“In the Northeast, only one state has a lower uninsurance rate and that’s Maine. All the other states are doing better than New Jersey. That was a real shock to me,” said Castro.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order over the weekend directing state agencies to step up Affordable Care Act outreach and enrollment efforts.

“The governor has said that he supports universal health care. In a way, this a first step to that direction,” said Castro.

“I also would make a suggestion that we do the same for Medicaid and CHIP eligibility,” said Sen. Joe Vitale, who chairs the Health Care Committee.

Maura Collinsgru with New Jersey Citizen Action says expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, otherwise known as CHIP, is a key first step.

“More than 750,000 New Jersey children have coverage because of this program and we believe there are more out there that can and should be covered,” said Collinsgru.

The stopgap measure passed by the Senate to end the shutdown includes a six-year funding expansion for CHIP.