ATLANTA - In the 2 1/2 years since the much-ballyhooed creation of a separate state health department, health officials have assembled an array of tools to tackle a key task Gov. Roy Barnes set out for the new agency: reducing the number of uninsured Georgians.
The Department of Community Health has expanded both Medicaid coverage and PeachCare for Kids, Georgia's health-insurance program for children, and is about to launch a series of pilot projects around the state focusing on the uninsured population.
But just as the efforts of health officials and their legislative allies are showing signs of progress, they're being hampered by the double impact of a souring economy and state budget cuts.
"As recession puts pressure on state finances, the state is less able to deal with these expenses," said William Custer, a health economist with the Center for Risk Management and Insurance Research at Georgia State University.
Last year, 1.16 million non-elderly Georgians lacked health insurance, according to a recent report co-authored by Mr. Custer. That represents about 16 percent of the state's non-elderly population, roughly the same as the national and Southeast rates.
The 2000 figures showed a slight decline in Georgia's uninsured population of about 30,000. The report cited an increase in employer-sponsored health coverage and the expansion of PeachCare for the rising numbers.
But while no definitive statistics are available on the most recent trends, both health officials and industry experts say the number of uninsured is about to go up.
Mr. Custer blamed unem-ployment produced by the current recession and higher health costs for the expected increase in the uninsured population.
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