Uninsured Kids Learning The Risks

The massive state budget cutbacks in California and other hard-hit states are about to leave hundreds of thousands of children uninsured for the first time. Parents who have uninsured kids often have awkward and painful conversations with their children about "being careful" on the monkey bars or the soccer field. As part of a collaboration with Youth Radio for KQED's Digital Natives project, we hear what one uninsured teen thinks of her lack of health coverage.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

High school can certainly be rough for any teenager, but try to imagine going to high school each morning knowing that you don't have health insurance. There are more than three million uninsured teenagers in the United States - about 75 percent of them qualify for public health coverage but they're not signed up. Others come from families that earn too much to qualify for government assistance, but not enough to afford private insurance.

Sarah Varney of member station KQED has the story of one California teenager who's just joined the ranks of the uninsured.

SARAH VARNEY: How do you tell your child they no longer have health insurance? And as a child, how do you figure out what it really means? For 15-year-old Jackie Diaz it really hit home when her mom said she'd probably have to forfeit a spot on the varsity basketball team.

Ms. JACKIE DIAZ: She told me that we didn't have health insurance right now and she needed to find, like, one for us because school was starting. And I like to do track and basketball, so she said that that might be cut back 'cause, I mean, if I broke anything it's a lot, like, a bone or anything, it'd be a lot to go to even the hospital or a visit to the clinic.

VARNEY: Jackie lives in Woodland, California, a small farming town near Sacramento. Her parents own a pipe welding business that has always provided health insurance, not only for the family but for their employees as well. But earlier this year the company could no longer afford the rising premiums for anybody. It dropped its policy and Jackie's family became uninsured for the first time.

Jackie's mom tried to sign the children up for a state health insurance program - they were put on a wait list and there are no guarantees. That's when Jackie got word she might have to sit out basketball her junior year at Pioneer High School.

Ms. DIAZ: It just sucks because you have to stop a sport you like doing just because someone can't offer you because money's tight right now.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Ms. DIAZ: Okay. So this is my room. To the right is my bed…

VARNEY: Track and field and basketball medals line Jackie's room. There's a coach's award for freshman basketball next to her bed and an MVP plaque for track and field next to her overstuffed closet. The walls and ceilings are painted in green and blue stripes, and Jackie's friends have put their painted handprints on the wall.

Ms. DIAZ: Well, this is - she hasn't even finished it - but it's my best friend. Her name's Julia. And then this is Cody's, my friend Tony, and then another friend, name's Miguel, and then…

VARNEY: These are her best friends - Jackie tells them everything. But somehow not having health insurance felt like a mark, something to be embarrassed about. At first, Jackie didn't think she would tell them but then she went ahead with it anyway.

Ms. DIAZ: Well, we were at lunch. It was me, my friend Julia, Thomas, Cody, Christian, Carissa, Elisa, and we were just there. And I was like, oh, you guys, do you guys all have health care? And they were like, yeah. And they were like, why? And I was like, oh, no reason. And then they're like, do you not have it? And I was like, no. They were like, oh, okay. I mean, they didn't really question me anymore.

VARNEY: Did they ask you why you didn't have it?

Ms. DIAZ: No, they didn't ask me why. I think they not knew but they, like, knew they shouldn't question it just because it's, like, you know, none of their business or anything.

VARNEY: But the issue didn't go away. Instead, Jackie says, it got some of her friends wondering about their own health coverage.

Ms. DIAZ: I went over to a friend's house and she commented about, you know, having money. And I was like, we're tight on money right now. And then she, my friend Julia, asked her mom if they had health insurance, and her mom was like, of course, why? And then she's like, oh, 'cause Jackie, you know, is doing this. And then she asked me, she's like, you guys - in, like, a surprised way -she's like, you guys don't have health insurance. And I was like, no. And she's like, oh.

VARNEY: It felt like the mom was judging her, Jackie says, or perhaps it was pity. That was a new feeling. She's always lived in a nice house. Her mom drives a shiny white Prius, she has a closet full of stylish clothes, and she's already thinking about where to apply to college. She's not used to people feeling sorry for her.

Ms. DIAZ: It's something that just, like, people look at you different because they're just like so surprised that you don't have health insurance 'cause they see a different side of you.

VARNEY: Jackie says her friends are really accepting. And though she's not one for drama, she does worry about what the other kids in her small high school would think about her being uninsured. They talk bad behind your back, she says.

The word will get out in November if Jackie doesn't have health insurance by then. That's when basketball season begins and the students at Pioneer High School will want to know why one of their star players is missing.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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