As dollars from the Economic Stimulus Act arrive here in the eight Rocky Mountain states, most Westerners seem to be talking about spending that money on shovel-ready jobs. The projects we hear about are intended to repair our crumbling schools, bridges, roads and sewers, or to restore our abused landscape. We know, too, that money is being made available to protect current jobs likely to be lost without federal help. On the whole, I think that the president and Congress are attempting, once again, to be a valued partner in one of our nation’s most difficult times.
But there’s something else to consider that’s even more basic: health care for children. As legislators and governors consider the appropriate uses of these public dollars, they would do well to realize that the competitiveness of the Rocky Mountain West is being undermined because working families—including 1 million of their children—have no health insurance.
In fact, six states in the Rocky Mountains have the highest percentage of uninsured children in America. That means that Western families with children suffer the worst health care coverage in the world—unless, of course, we want to compare ourselves with a few impoverished, war-ridden disaster zones in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.
We Westerners consider ourselves a caring and large-minded people. Well, insuring our families—and particularly our kids—is not only a matter of principle, it has now become an economic imperative: Uninsured families can rapidly sink into bankruptcy from a single child’s health emergency. Health insurance for our children thus becomes a sound investment because it avoids dependence on expensive emergency room care, provides preventive care and helps to avoid a lifetime of unnecessary illnesses.
Meanwhile, the current economic mess, including the lack of health care insurance, is stifling the economy of the Rockies. You can see the impacts in drained savings accounts, lost mortgages, hospital closures in our rural areas, overly burdensome insurance premiums, lost profits and productivity for our critical small businesses, and, of course, enormously costly private insurance. It is estimated that our states could save an average of $2,100 per child each year if health care were provided, compared with the current non-system, which shifts costs to those of us who have insurance, as well as to the region’s seriously strapped health care providers. And, as always in the rural West, small towns get hit the hardest.
Because the West has mostly small businesses, a large percentage of working families have no employer-provided insurance. Nationally, 4 percent of people who have insurance pay the entire cost; in the Rocky Mountain West that number has soared to 7 percent. The rising cost of health care and thus insurance has caused significant erosion in the proportion of Western working families able to obtain coverage through an employer. Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado are among the 10 states in the nation experiencing the sharpest declines in private insurance coverage for our kids.
Many states continue to try to alleviate the problem, but of the 18 states to extend what is known as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to more low and some middle-income families, not one is in the Rocky Mountain West. Montana voted to do so in the past general election, but conservatives in the current Montana Legislature are trying to renege on that overwhelming public mandate. Those conservatives forget that SCHIP was once considered a non-partisan policy: It was written by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. There have been recent attempts to help more children: In 2007, the House of Representatives and Senate twice passed health care coverage for several million children. Both times the bills were vetoed.
Spurred by last November’s elections, our government is trying to right the wrongs of the last decade and a half. With this new stimulus package made available by the president and the Congress, the states will at last get additional dollars that can be used to insure our children. The Rocky Mountain states have been slow on this issue. Now, this region has the chance to strengthen families by channeling some of this new money toward children who need it.
Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) He served as a nine-term congressman for Montana and now teaches at the University of Montana as a senior fellow emeritus.