Public News Service

BILLINGS, Mont. — The number of Montana children without health coverage has gone up by 25%, according to a new report which said the increase came during stronger economic times.

The findings from the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families cover a three-year period, from 2016 to 2019.

Montana had an estimated 15,000 uninsured children last year, compared to 12,000 in 2016.

Xanna Burg, KIDS COUNT coordinator for Montana, said because the data is pre-pandemic, they don’t know how many more families have lost coverage.

But she added there’s real concern the number is growing.

“We do know that families are struggling,” Burg emphasized. “You know people are losing their jobs and with it, the health insurance that came with those jobs.”

The report cites constant changes to the Affordable Care Act and more red tape in various states as possible factors for rate spikes.

Montana has accepted a Medicaid expansion in recent years, but there have also been efforts to attach a work requirement for eligibility.

Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, said while there have been attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, including funding cuts for outreach and enrollment, that doesn’t mean states shouldn’t be doing all they can to help families qualify for assistance programs.

“States do have enormous power here,” Alker explained. “However, they can’t entirely outrun the federal context. We’re going to have to see a renewed commitment at all levels of government, federal and state, to turn this situation around.”

Meanwhile, Burg said one of the glaring concerns in Montana is that nearly 22% of American Indian children don’t have coverage. She cites chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service (IHS) program.

“The IHS has been severely underfunded for a long time,” Burg contended. “It receives only half the amount per-person that Medicaid receives. ”

Statewide, Montana’s rate of uninsured children was more than 6% in 2019, higher than the national average of 5.7%.