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HELENA – Signing up Montana children for coverage under the new, voter-approved Healthy Montana Kids program has been slowed by backlogs and bottlenecks in public assistance programs, state officials acknowledged last week.

But they’re hoping enrollment figures will increase, as the state responds to a heavier-than-expected number of people seeking assistance and prepares to launch a media campaign publicizing Healthy Montana Kids.

“We can always do better and will continue to move ahead with our enrollment partners,” said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. “We all share the same goal of adding as many children into the program as soon as possible.”

Healthy Montana Kids was approved by Montana voters in 2008, with the expectation of providing government-financed health insurance for an additional 29,000 uninsured children.

It expanded eligibility for two programs funded by the state and the federal government: Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program. The state kicked off the expansion last

Oct. 1.

Yet through Dec. 31, only 2,600 kids have been added to both Medicaid and CHIP.

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said those who fought during the 2009 Legislature to approve funding for Healthy Montana Kids are none too happy that sign-ups have occurred so slowly.

“I know people out there with kids who would be eligible who aren’t even aware of the program,” he said last week.

He said he and other legislators also are frustrated by what they see as a lack of up-to-date information from the Schweitzer administration on sign-ups for the program.

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State health officials said they’ve decided to report the Healthy Montana Kids numbers with a two-month lag, because it often takes up to 45 days to process applications. The numbers through Jan. 31 will be reported April 1.

The state also doesn’t have a count on how many applications are being processed, but said 3,000 were received at its central office in January and February.

The state has been promising a widespread media campaign to publicize Healthy Montana Kids since before it began, and officials said last week the campaign finally will start March 29, with broadcast and newspaper advertisements.

The 2009 Legislature also authorized the state to hire 24 additional workers to process applications for the program. Six of those positions were filled last summer and another 14 have been added during the fall and winter, but four slots remain unfilled, state officials said.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison @lee.net.

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