By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Colorado still lags behind most states when it comes to children’s health, but better access to health insurance has helped the state climb from 45th in the nation two years ago to 39th this year, according to the 2014 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Colorado also has seen a dramatic decline in teen birth rates. Since 2005, the teen birth rate has fallen faster in Colorado than in any other state in the country except Delaware. Among girls ages 15 to 19, the birth rate has fallen 42 percent in seven years.
“That’s a huge decline and it’s also hugely positive for Colorado. It’s a good thing when women wait until they are older and pregnancies are planned,” said Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
Colorado’s 2014 rankings among all states are:
• Overall: 22nd (down from 21st in 2013)
• Economic Well-Being: 18th (up from 19th in 2013)
• Education: 11th (down from 9th in 2013)
• Health: 39th (up from 42nd in 2012)
• Family and Community: 21st (stayed the same)
While Colorado has struggled with health indicators, including low birth weight, that drag the state down in overall child health ratings, Hughes said the rise to 39th marks progress.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” she said. “Child health has been an area where Colorado has ranked the lowest, but it’s also the area where we’ve seen the greatest improvement.”
For instance, she said that as recently as 2008, 14 percent of Colorado children had no health insurance. As of 2012, that figure had declined to 9 percent and with the reforms under the Affordable Care Act, more children were expected to get coverage in 2013 and 2014.
“We will continue to see that number go down,” said Hughes.
Even the change in covered kids from 14 to 9 percent is notable.
“This is a big improvement,” Hughes said. “It means there are thousands of kids who can go to the doctor when they’re sick.”
Families with health insurance don’t face the possibility of financial ruin if their child needs health care.
Another indicator that has gone down is the percentage of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs.
“This has typically been an area where Colorado has ranked pretty poorly,” Hughes said.
In 2005-06, the study found that about 10 percent of teens abused alcohol and drugs. By 2011-12, that figured had declined to 7 percent.
Hughes said it’s too early to know how marijuana legalization for adults could affect use among teens.
“We really have no idea what to expect over the next couple of years,” she said.
The other child health indicators are low birth weight babies, and child and teen deaths.
Higher altitude is closely linked with lower birth weight.
“It’s still an area where Colorado ranks pretty low,” said Hughes. “Many people here live at higher altitude and there’s not much we can do to change that factor.”
Altitude, however, is just one factor in birth weight and efforts to promote prenatal health, cut smoking rates among pregnant women and reduce premature births can boost birth weights.
“The final indicator is child and teen deaths. And there’s good news here. We’ve seen an improvement since 2005,” Hughes said.
She attributes improved child safety measures such as better seat belts and more stringent laws for strapping kids in car seats.
While poverty rates are not a formal health indicator in the Kids Count report, Colorado continues to struggle in hoisting itself out of the Great Recession, and that’s not good for kids.
“We know that if kids are living in poverty, not getting access to healthy foods and living in dangerous neighborhoods, poverty can have a huge impact on a child’s health,” Hughes said.
“Even though the recession was over in 2012, the poverty rate was higher in 2012 than at any point during the economic downturn,” she said.
“A lot of kids and their families are having a really hard time bouncing back from the recession and getting back on their feet,” Hughes said.
While Colorado has made some improvements in child health, continued high poverty rates could trigger backsliding.
“It will limit any improvements we can make in child health,” Hughes said. “If we continue having a bigger and bigger percent of our kids living in poverty, it will hold our state back.”