updated 8/3/2004 2:46:58 PM ET 2004-08-03T18:46:58

About 5 million children have been added to government health programs since 2001, many because their parents lost employer-sponsored insurance, according to a study Tuesday.

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Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program provided a safety net for children whose parents’ coverage ended or became too expensive during the economic downturn at the start of the decade, said the Center for Studying Health System Change, a private research organization in Washington, D.C.

“Public insurance clearly picked up the slack,” the group said in its report.

A separate Urban Institute report highlighted problems children face when they lack insurance, including missing regular checkups and visiting hospital emergency rooms for routine care. Nearly half of uninsured children had no checkup in the last year, that report said.

Minorities hardest hit
The studies were released in tandem by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its Covering Kids and Families campaign to boost children’s health insurance. The foundation said lack of insurance is especially pronounced among African-American and Hispanic children.

Public insurance programs typically see enrollment increase when the economy slows and people lose their jobs. The study of employer coverage found 67 percent of Americans were insured through their employers in 2001. By 2003, that number had dropped to 63.4 percent.

Sustained economic growth should increase employer coverage, easing the burden on public programs, the health research group said.

As it is, states that have struggled with budget crises because of the economy are trying to cut health program costs, although several million more children are eligible for them. State actions have included restricting eligibility, freezing enrollment and increasing participants’ contributions, several studies have found.

Federal and state governments share the costs of both Medicaid, which provides health care for the poorest families and children, and SCHIP, for children from working poor families.

The plans cover more than 17 million children, the Johnson foundation said. Eligibility varies by state, but on average, a family of four earning up to $37,000 a year can qualify, it said.

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