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Insurance companies in St. Louis area end child-only insurance policies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2010 - Parents in the St. Louis area will have a difficult time finding insurers willing to write new child-only health insurance policies, but that type of coverage will continue to be available to children living on the western side of the state, according to state insurance officials.

Many major health-insurance companies announced recently that they would quit offering child-only policies because new federal rules no longer would allow companies to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. The companies took action before major new health reform provisions took effect today. The insurers' decision will not affect child-only policies already in force.

Travis Ford, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Insurance, says that as far as the agency can determine, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City is the only company to continue offering new child-only insurance coverage.

"But the problem is that it covers only 30 counties on the western part of the state," Ford says. "This is disturbing to us. It's a service we'd like to see remain in place. We've been in touch with the insurers and are working with them to keep something in place. We want to try to see that there is a product that's available and financially feasible to both the consumer and the insurer."

Ford said the state did not know how many children would be affected. He added that efforts to persuade insurers to reconsider is "by no mean a done deal," but that the state hopes to find a way to keep the program.

Ford said the eastern part of the state is covered by Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. He said the state did not know how many children would be affected because insurers did not have to provide that information. He said Anthem now had about 1,500 child-only policies out of about 78,000 individual policies.

"Child policies represent only about 2 percent of the market, but we'd like to see that companies continue to offer the product," Ford said.

A spokesperson at Coventry, a health insurer that operates Group Health Plan in this region, decided to stop offering the policies because more clarity was needed about the rules under which child-only policies are offered.

"One question is whether you can sell the coverage only through open enrollment. That's an issue because unless the policies are sold during open enrollment, if there's a catastrophic illness, a child can call and get coverage on the way to the hospital. That could affect our cost."

The spokesperson also noted that children could still get coverage through their parents' policies and through Medicaid.

The new federal health-reform law was aimed at preventing insurers from dropping people from coverage when they suffer a serious illness.

Robert Zirkelbach, press secretary for America's Health Insurance Plans, defended the decision by insurers to drop child-only coverage, saying, "the current regulation provides a powerful incentive for parents to wait to purchase coverage until after their children become sick, which will drive up the cost for those who are currently insured.

"Given the current uncertainty in the niche marketplace for child-only coverage, health plans have to make very difficult decisions about the types of new policies they will offer."

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.