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Utah prepares to expand children's health insurance program

Posted at 3:40 PM, Oct 04, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The state is gearing up for a big expansion of a program providing health care coverage for some of Utah's most vulnerable children.

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, met with community leaders and urged them to spread the word that the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would begin taking more sign-ups in January.

"This is getting us closer to really putting our money where our mouth is," Sen. Escamilla told FOX 13 News. "We love children and we’re a family oriented state. We can now have more kids covered in Utah."

CHIP provides medical and dental coverage for children in low-income families.

"These are kiddos that for whatever reason may not fit on any of the current eligibility criteria or immigration status," Sen. Escamilla said.

Because some of the children may live in households where someone is an undocumented immigrant or a refugee, the state is doing more outreach to try to let them know that it's OK to sign up and they may qualify for CHIP. At a news conference at the Glendale Community Learning Center, the Senate Minority Leader urged some leaders in their local communities to get the word out.

"I think there’s a little bit of worry that families just don’t know," said Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children. "Because they’ve never been eligible, may not necessarily trust that hey, this is actually helping."

This year, the legislature budgeted $4 million for CHIP expansion. That will cover about 2,000 more children. Politically speaking, the bill has been a major lift for Sen. Escamilla. For years, she has introduced the bill and ultimately won over critics to the point where it passed the Republican supermajority legislature.

"I was skeptical. I did not support it," Rep. Dunnigan confessed in an interview with FOX 13 News.

He praised Sen. Escamilla's determination and said she was receptive to implementing guardrails to win over colleagues on the other side of the aisle. He ended up being the House sponsor of the bill.

"I gave a number of suggestions to make it better for Utah," he said. "Those were incorporated, so now I can fully support it."

Rep. Dunnigan argued there are benefits to taxpayers in the bill. It saves money in the long run and helps the health care system.

"Federal law says you can go to the emergency room. You cannot be turned away. They have to treat you. People go there, they use it like a walk-in clinic which is very inefficient and then the hospital’s stuck with it," he said of the medical bills. "This is a program that we’re going to direct them to get preventive care, primary care, stay out of the ER. It will help our health care system."

Sen. Escamilla said in the years she pushed to get the bill passed, she heard heartbreaking stories from people struggling to provide care for their children or having to choose between medicine and groceries. She told the crowd of a woman she met who fled a domestic violence situation.

"She came here running away. She had three jobs. Her daughter had just been diagnosed with cancer. Six years old. And I had a six year-old at my house," Sen. Escamilla said. "I remember giving her a hug and saying 'I'll try' and inside I was like, 'What am I going to do if I can’t pass this bill?' I couldn’t stop thinking of that little girl. Because I was able to put my six-year-old to bed, knowing she had insurance. She has access to good care and that little girl didn't."

To find out more about CHIP click here.