The number of children enrolled in Virginia's health insurance program for minors has risen dramatically since 2002, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced yesterday during a stop in Alexandria to highlight what he considers one of the big successes of his administration.
There are now 385,000 children covered by the program, an increase of 102,000 in the past two years.
The program, known as FAMIS, for Family Access to Medical Insurance Security, provides full medical benefits for children if their families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance.
Warner, who took office in January 2002, promised that he would enroll tens of thousands more children into the program, which pays for doctor's visits, medicine and other health services.
"We were not doing a very good job" in Virginia, he said yesterday at the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology in Alexandria, where he announced the numbers.
Before the state stepped up the effort in September 2002, Warner said, Virginia had lost the opportunity to collect $56 million in federal funds for the program over several years. The federal government pays 65 percent of the cost and the state contributes most of the rest.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the rate at which Virginia was enrolling children in its health insurance program in 2002 was one of the lowest of all states.
"Clearly Virginia went from being a state that wasn't even on the map to being one of the nation's leaders," said Diane Rowland, the executive vice president of the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on health care issues. Many states, she said, have had to cut back on enrollments because of budget problems, while Virginia has expanded its program.
State officials said the effort included an aggressive advertising campaign, a restructuring of several offices at the Department of Medical Assistance Services and a simplification of the forms. As a result, they said, Virginia has been enrolling an average of 4,000 children a month, up from 1,200 a month.
"It's been a change in philosophy," said Terone Green, who has served on the Board of Medical Assistance Services under Warner and former governor James S. Gilmore III (R).
But one of the people who helped supervise Virginia officials as they ushered in the children's insurance program in 1997 said that the Warner administration sometimes has been too lenient in letting families into the program and could have done a better job keeping down costs.
"I think it was a prudently run program before," said James T. Parmelee, who served on the board for eight years under former Republican governors Gilmore and George Allen. He said the Gilmore administration did see a growth in numbers over the years, though at a lower rate. "We did a number of things to make sure that the word was getting out to people who were eligible," he said.
The state's announcement came as Families USA, a consumer group, released statistics indicating that workers' costs for health insurance have increased by 36 percent nationwide since 2000. Many companies are dropping medical insurance from their benefit packages.
"We're still finding that more children every day need these [health insurance] services," Warner said in an interview. "That's why it's important for us to continue this work."
State officials said they must work on retaining many of the children who are enrolled in the program. Although 102,000 were enrolled in the past two years, about 12,000 are lost each month.
Many times, families increase their income and no longer qualify or children become too old to qualify. But in other cases, the officials said, children are lost to the program because they move and families are not closely tracked. "What I'm hoping is that we can cut that 12,000 in half," Warner said.
Jennell Charles, executive director of the Arlandria Health Center in Alexandria, who was on hand for Warner's remarks, said, "It's a challenge to get kids enrolled . . . but retention is often the hardest part."