What is more Texan than pit barbecue, bluebonnets, Friday Night Lights, Whataburger and Willie?
If you’re a Texan who likes to wrap yourself in the Lone Star flag, wrap your head around this: more ubiquitous than any Texas-shaped tattoo or tortilla chip is something far less deserving of our pride: Kids without health insurance. Once again, Texas has the largest share of uninsured kids in the nation, accounting for 1 in every 5 in the United States, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.
Texas’ uninsured rate among kids was 10.7 percent in 2017 — more than double the national average of 5 percent. An estimated 835,000 Texas children went without health insurance, an increase of about 80,000 from the year before.
No Texan can be proud of this. Yet, after 20 years of ranking at or near the bottom for insured kids, nobody in power seems to care enough to address it.
Neither Gov. Greg Abbott nor Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — regardless of their touted “pro-life” credentials. Nor lawmakers who lead health committees in the Texas Legislature.
For all the lip service Abbott gives to pre-K, for all the passion with which Patrick fights for private school vouchers, for all the talk among lawmakers about improving Texas’ schools, they seem to miss one thing.
It doesn’t matter how much we invest in public education if we don’t invest in public health. Kids need to stay healthy to attend school. They need eyeglasses to see the chalkboard. They need immunizations to protect all of us from disease. Kids with asthma need access to preventative care. Kids with cancer need a fighting chance at survival.
Texas was late to embrace the Children’s Health Insurance Program, approved by Congress in 1997, and we’ve lagged ever since. Now the problem has gotten worse, exacerbated in part by federal policies that have brought progress in other states to a halt, and in some states, backward.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the number of uninsured children in the United States increased, according to the Georgetown report. We’d expect the opposite in a time of economic strength when more children are covered by employer-sponsored insurance. But some working families can’t afford that option. Many kids rely on government programs, which are increasingly at risk.
States such as Texas, where leaders like Abbott refuse to expand Medicaid and have actively worked to thwart the Affordable Care Act, have fared the worst.
A new threat comes directly from President Trump: Enrollment in government programs is dropping among immigrants, including those legally here, as xenophobic rhetoric intensifies. Parents whose children are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP fear enrolling them will endanger the family’s status. One reason is the Trump administration’s so-called “public charge rule,” which threatens to deny green cards to those who have applied for certain types of government assistance.
The troubling rise in uninsured children isn’t expected to let up soon.
“Kids are the canaries in the coal mine because we always have an easier time getting them insured,” said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation. “When you see their numbers dropping, that’s really bad news for all of us.”
It doesn’t have to be. It should be a clarion call for conscientious lawmakers who say they care about Texas, and the future of Texas, to act.
Depriving children of access to doctors is as senseless as it is immoral. Kids are cheaper to insure because they tend to be healthy. Most Texas Medicaid recipients are children and although lawmakers complain about the cost of the program, the state pays less than half.
The biggest barrier that stands in the way of kids and coverage isn’t the politicians. It’s the average Texans who seem oblivious to the problem.
“If you don’t know it,” Marks said, “then you can’t be ashamed of it.”
Well, fellow Texan, now you know. Spread the word if your pride is true. Spur your representatives to act.
Carry the banner for our Texas children as high as you do our beloved Lone Star.