SAN JOSE — A program to use tobacco settlement money to provide every child in Santa Clara County with health care has garnered an overwhelming response – especially from other cities wishing to do the same, proponents say.
The Santa Clara County Children’s Health Initiative is designed to let parents know what local, state and federal health insurance programs their children qualify for, and to make up for any coverage gaps left by those programs.
“We have had interest from all over the country from people that would like to copy this program,” said Kevin Malone, a community organizer for People Acting in Community Together, a faith-based group that helped organize the program. “As far as we know, there’s nothing like this one.”
The Rev. Rex Police, a member of the San Diego Organizing Project that is trying to get a similar initiative in that county, told a story of his own experience with health care at a news conference Friday marking the official start of the Santa Clara program.
Three years ago, Police’s 1-month-old grandson was found to have a hole in his heart, and because the boy’s mother had taken a 3-month leave from work after giving birth, their insurance had lapsed.
The hospital refused to operate on the boy without insurance, but Police said his wife camped out in the hospital for two weeks to get them to agree to perform the lifesaving surgery. The boy now is fine.
“I hope our (county) supervisors in San Diego can see that the supervisors here have stepped up to the plate,” Police said.
The initiative officially starts Sunday, but more than 5,000 children already have been signed up in the past two months. That exceeds the initiative’s projection of signing up 500 children a month.
San Jose resident Irma Perez, a mother of two, learned of the initiative through a teacher at her children’s school and will sign up for the program Sunday. Her two daughters, 9 and 5, have been without health insurance for at least six months because her husband changed jobs, and his new job does not offer health insurance.
“Thank God, up to now, they haven’t gotten sick,” she said in Spanish. “In this country, the cost of health care is very expensive.”
An estimated 70,000 children in Santa Clara County are without health insurance, and more than half of them are in San Jose. The initiative also aims to sign up undocumented children.
The initiative, which signs people up for Medi-Cal, the state and federal Healthy Families program and the county’s Healthy Kids program, also teaches participants how to use the insurance to make sure that they stay part of their program, Malone said.
The initiative is expected to cost $14 million a year and can cover kids in families making up to three times the federal poverty level, meaning a family of four that makes almost $52,000 is eligible. Proponents have said that’s important in an area known for its high cost of living.
The county will spend $3 million of the $18.5 million it is expecting each year for the next 25 years under the tobacco settlement. The city of San Jose will contribute nearly $3 million of tobacco settlement money over the next three years. Another $2 million will from tobacco taxes and $1 million from a county-run health maintenance organization.
That leaves about $5 million left to raise.
The 1998 tobacco settlement resulted from 46 states, including California, suing the tobacco industry to recoup the costs of treating sick smokers. The states will split $206 billion over 25 years. Four other states settled separately for another $40 billion.