Apr 18, 2022 - Health

Pandemic's end could surge the number of uninsured kids

Illustration of an umbrella with holes in it.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The formal end of the pandemic could swell the ranks of uninsured children by 6 million or more as temporary reforms to Medicaid are lifted.

Why it matters: Gaps in coverage could limit access to needed care and widen health disparities, by hitting lower-income families and children of color the hardest, experts say.

The big picture: A requirement that states keep Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled during the public health emergency in order to get more federal funding is credited with preventing a spike in uninsured adults and kids during the crisis.

  • Children are the biggest eligibility group in Medicaid, especially in the 12 states that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.
  • The lifting of the public health emergency, which was just extended to July 15, will lead states to determine whether their Medicaid enrollees are still eligible for coverage — a complicated process that could result in millions of Americans being removed from the program.

What they’re saying: The end of the continuous coverage guarantee puts as many as 6.7 million children at very high risk of losing coverage, per Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

  • That would more than double the number of uninsured kids, which stood at 4.4 million in 2019.
  • "It is a stark, though we believe conservative, estimate," said Joan Alker, the center's executive director. "There are a lot of children on Medicaid."

Between the lines: Not all of the Medicaid enrollees who are removed from the program would become uninsured. But parents and their children could be headed down different paths if their household income has risen even slightly.

  • Adults who've returned to work may be able to get insurance through their employer. Others could get coverage through the ACA marketplace, though it's unclear whether that would come the COVID-inspired extra financial assistance that's now being offered.
  • Most kids would be headed for the Children's Health Insurance Program, Alker said — a prospect that can entail added red tape and the payment of premiums or an annual enrollment fee, depending on the state.

What we're watching: Changes in children's coverage could be most pronounced in Texas, Florida and Georgia — the biggest non-Medicaid expansion states, which have higher rates of uninsured children than the national average.

  • Congress could still require continuous Medicaid coverage, the way the House did when it passed the sweeping social policy package that stalled in the Senate over cost concerns.
  • CMS' Office of the Actuary projects a smaller decline in Medicaid enrollment than some health policy experts are predicting — and the Biden administration continues to move people deemed ineligible for Medicaid onto ACA plans, Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins noted in a recent report on the unwinding of the public health emergency.
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