Gov. Ted Strickland has signed an order giving middle-class children with special needs access to health insurance.

The new program is thought to be the first in the nation that is entirely state-funded and is aimed at children with conditions that make it expensive or even impossible to obtain insurance.

"It's very targeted to kids with special needs and aids families who we have not been able to offer assistance to in the past," said John Corlett, who oversees Medicaid and other health-care programs run by the state. Strickland, a Democrat, said he hopes the program will help parents of uninsured children with special needs.

"The Children's Buy-In Program lessens the burden and worry for parents who have had difficulty obtaining coverage for their children due to a special condition," he said.

"Affordable access to health-care coverage is crucial to ensuring that families can lay a solid foundation for their children to enjoy future success." The Children's Buy-In Program is available to children younger than 19 in families earning more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $63,600 a year for a family of four.

To qualify, the child also must be unable to obtain insurance because of a pre-existing condition, must have lost insurance for exceeding the lifetime benefit limitation or must have access only to insurance that is more than twice the cost of the buy-in program.

Premiums, ranging from $250 to $500 a month, will be based on income. Families can apply online at www.jfs.ohio.gov/ohp/cbi. State officials expect about 5,000 uninsured children to participate in the program, at a cost of about $10 million over the next 15 months.

Amy Swanson, executive director of Voices for Ohio's Children, said health insurance for children with chronic or pre-existing conditions often carries a big price tag, even for middle-class families. "For those families, there are few choices," she said.

"This program is for families who have been making tough choices between food and health care, and this will be a much more affordable way for them to get their children the health care that they need."