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School Shots Harder To Get Under Healthy Families Freeze

Above: Par Lor, like many California parents, is having trouble paying for vaccinations needed for her daughter to attend school with the recent freeze to Healthy Families.

— Many California kids are getting ready to go back to school. Before being allowed to return, their vaccinations must be up to date. But thanks to the state’s budget crisis, this will be a difficult and expensive task for a growing number of low-income families.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, called Healthy Families, recently froze its enrollment to cut costs and the impact is now being felt by parents around the state.

Pa Lor of North Sacramento says she was planning on getting Healthy Families coverage for her four-year-old daughter, Percaeus, last week. Lor went into a local agency to enroll her but then found out it wasn’t possible. She says the program was going to help get Percaeus ready for school.

“She doesn’t have any health coverage and I’m trying to enroll her in preschool and so in order for her to start preschool she needs to get her immunization shots and her TB tests and stuff and so that’s why we came here and found out that we’re on the waiting list,” said Lor.

Lor works as a family resource aid for AmeriCorps which only provides her with health insurance. And her husband has a temp IT job without any health benefits. She says she doesn’t know how she’ll afford a doctor’s visit for Percaeus.

“I don’t know, probably going to either not take her, or either just wait to see if there’s another program or wait, I don’t know, it’s hard,” said Lor.

To help close a $26 billion budget hole, the state is poised to cut Healthy Families funding by a third. About one million low-income kids are already on the rolls. But since the freeze went into effect last Friday, more than seven thousand children have tried to enroll and instead joined Percaeus on the waiting list.

On this afternoon at the UC Davis Medical Center a teenager is getting a Chicken Pox booster shot to go back to school.

On the other side of the room, pediatrician Dr. Richard Pan opens a refrigerator to point out some of the vaccines kids must get to be able to go to school.

“Let’s see here, this is our MMR vaccine, measles, mumps, rubella…that’s one of those preschool required vaccines, as well and here’s the varicella, that’s the Chicken Pox vaccine as well,” said Pan.

Pan says parents use Healthy Families to cover the cost of vaccines. He says without insurance it’s an expensive proposition.

“My guess is that you could end up easily spending $350 to $400 if you’re paying for a physician’s regular check up and the vaccinations associated with that for school entry,” said Pan.

Lesley Cummings is the executive director of the board that oversees Healthy Families.

“We know and have talked to states that have done this in the past, it takes a while to recover, it takes a while to build the program back,” said Cummings.

After reaching a budget deal legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are calling for a more than $140 million state funding cut to the program.

By law, Cummings says Healthy Families cannot go into debt. For now, that means no new enrollment in the program, which will leave about 350,000 kids out in the cold over the next year. Cummings says soon they may eventually have to drop children from the Healthy Families program

“We know and have talked to states that have done this in the past, it takes a while to recover, it takes a while to build the program back,” said Cummings.

Children’s health advocates say the combination of an enrollment freeze and disenrolling kids would be devastating. They claim almost 800,000 children would be denied coverage over the next year. Until the state legislature approves the budget deal it’s not clear how big the cut will be for Healthy Families.

In the meantime families who can’t get coverage can go to community health centers to get the vaccines. They offer discounted or free shots depending on income. But these clinics are also strained under their own budget cuts.

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