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Adovocates for Children's Health Insurance Programs say more children should be enrolled; More money

Tens of thousands of low income children in Ohio are eligible for health insurance, but they are not using it. Advocates of the State Children's Health Insurance Program - called SCHIP - say the program needs more awareness to get uninsured children enrolled. WOSU reports Voices of Ohio's Children will host a phone-a-thon Tuesday in Columbus and three other Ohio cities.

For Stephanie Merkle, a young wife and mother from Grandview, Christmas Eve proved to be extra special. She gave birth to a baby boy - her third child. But it might not have been so joyous an occasion if she and her husband had had to pay for the hospital visit out-of-pocket. Luckily the family is covered by Medicaid.

The couple, who are self-employed, had a tough business year in 2008. So when Merkle became pregnant the couple signed up for Medicaid. It covered all her pre- and post-natal expenses, and all three of their children's health needs.

She said without the program it would be tough to pay their health bills.

"Struggling to figure out and make payment plans, and, and, struggling. I don't know how else to say it. Because it's just so hard with things are so tight to come up with that money," Merkle said.

Merkle said four years ago, when she had her first child, she paid out-of-pocket. Between the pre-natal care and the hospital stay the total cost exceeded $8,000. This time everything was covered by Medicaid.

"No charge for prescriptions either. They cover 100 percent of everything. And that's really the beauty of it. You don't have to worry," she said.

Sandy Erb-Wilson directs Voices for Ohio's Children, a children's advocacy group. She said there are 156,000 uninsured children across Ohio. But what's more staggering is that two-thirds of them qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP - they're just not enrolled.

Medicaid and SCHIP are similar in that they both offer health insurance for children. Each program's qualifications are little different, though. For Medicaid, a family of four can make up to 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Line and have additional insurance. With SCHIP a family of four can make up to $42,400 a year, but they can not have any other insurance.

Erb-Wilson said Voices for Ohio's Children is sponsoring a phone-a-thon in Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Youngstown to answer questions about child health care programs and get kids enrolled. She said a common misconception is S-CHIP or Medicaid is for only unemployed families.

"There are programs that are helpful to working families. Even if a family is still employed in these challenging economic times we definitely want to make sure that health care options for their children and the programs that are available are known to the families," Erb-Wilson said.

Even as they try to enroll additional children, SCHIP supporters worry about the program's future. The Federal government pays for about 75 percent of the cost for Ohio's SCHIP program; the state pays the rest. But federal funding for the program is set to run out in March unless Congress approves more money, and supporters hope congress increases funding to make more children eligible.

The call for increased funding comes as Governor Strickland warns he may have to cut state Medicaid programs if Ohio does not receive Federal help with its budget deficit. Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown said the county put money aside in light of looming state budget cuts.

"What we had done is set aside an additional amount of our General Fund money to be available for plugging some of the holes that were specifically for cuts form the state; so we have a little bit of money to plug those holes from the state and if we need to we will use it to cover those children I would hope," Brown said.

In Franklin County alone, 20,000 children 18 and younger are without health insurance.