It’s been over two months since federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program expired. Without action by Congress to reauthorize CHIP funding soon, thousands of low-income children in California will be without health coverage come December.

The reality of children living without health insurance is one we’ve seen before in San Mateo County – and one First 5 San Mateo County fought successfully to change.

In 2002, more than 17,000 children in San Mateo County were without health insurance. During a time of severe economic downturn, the majority of uninsured children were low-income and undocumented. Others were the victims of ineffective enrollment strategies; while eligible, they were not getting enrolled in the federal Medi-Cal and Healthy Families Programs. Although preventive care and routine medical exams help promote healthy development and prevent hospitalizations, public hospitals were finding themselves overwhelmed with uninsured patients.

It was during this crisis of coverage that First 5 San Mateo County identified broadening children’s health care as a key investment priority. An experienced leader in innovative and collaborative partnership, we convened a broad-based group of passionate and committed leaders with the goal of creating a new insurance product that would achieve universal health insurance for children in San Mateo County.

Funding for this forward-thinking program required public and private partnership, including a pledge from the County of San Mateo to match noncounty funds dollar for dollar. In keeping with our mission of supporting the health of our youngest residents, First 5 San Mateo County invested funds to cover the cost of all children ages 0 – 5 in the County, while two independent health care districts supported coverage of any uninsured children ages 6 – 18.

This highly innovative partnership proved to have deep impact. High demand for children’s health insurance combined with effective outreach to find and enroll those in need produced rapid growth in enrollment.

Between 2002 and 2007, San Mateo County’s Children’s Health Initiative reduced the number of uninsured children in the county from 17,000 to just 2,000. While it’s difficult to quantify the economic value of this reduction in uninsured children, increased use of preventive care has been tied to improved attendance in school, improved learning and improved economic opportunities later in life.

San Mateo’s Children’s Health Initiative was — and continues to be — a model for collaboration and collective impact. One of the first programs of its kind, it proved successful at impacting policy at the state and local level, including the future development of the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the future of universal health coverage for all children hangs in the balance. However, First 5 San Mateo County remains as committed to ensuring health equity for all as we were in 2002. Establishing collective partnerships to expand capacity and reach is central to our mission, and we will do whatever necessary to promote the health of our children. The future of San Mateo’s children’s health is in our hands, and we take that responsibility seriously.