Youth in Foster Care Can Benefit Greatly from ACA, but Need Advocates to Act Now to Make Sure They Do

  By Ginny Puddefoot, The Children’s Partnership

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), youth who are in foster care on their 18th birthday will soon have access to extended health insurance coverage through Medicaid until reaching the age of 26. This represents a huge benefit to these young people–and a major challenge for all of us. We must identify and build connections with foster-youth serving networks now, before these youth emancipate from care and are “lost” from the system.

What better time to start this work than now, during National Foster Care Month? This month we recognize that not all children have parents who can provide for their needs and protect them from harm. It is a time we reaffirm our collective responsibility for these children, who number more than 400,000 nationally.  Thankfully, national policy and funding have recognized that our collective responsibility for these children does not end when they turn 18. Children in foster care may now continue to be cared for, and have access to services, until they turn 21. And, beginning in 2014, ACA extends their health insurance coverage to age 26.

Virtually all children in foster care receive access to health care through Medicaid. Although this coverage is not perfect, it goes a long way toward addressing the complex needs of children in foster care. Thanks to the ACA, these young people will continue to be eligible for health care coverage as they build their independence as young adults–just as my own children will be.

What makes this provision so especially important is the fact that compared to other children, those in foster care have more significant health issues. For example, recent studies suggest that nearly 60% of children in foster care have at least one chronic medical condition, and 25% suffer from three or more.

An estimated 50% to 80% of children in foster care suffer from moderate to severe mental health problems.  Continued access to health care is essential if youth in foster care are to successfully transition to independent adulthood, and soon, they will have it.

As we know, enacting the coverage expansion is only the first step to ensuring access to care. In this complex environment of ACA implementation, it is important to develop strategies now to ensure that youth in foster care know about this expansion in Medicaid coverage. Child welfare agencies, service providers, advocates, educational institutions, and the array of organizations youth in foster care have contact with must be educated now about the Medicaid expansion, before losing contact with them. Otherwise, there is a strong possibility that thousands of young people will exit foster care and lose their connection to this tremendous source of support.

So what are we to do?

Now is the time for those of us who focus on health care for underserved children–and have sorely needed expertise about Medicaid and ACA eligibility and enrollment–to reach out and forge connections with foster care providers and advocates, both in our communities and more broadly. Start by contacting the county or state child welfare services agency and asking for a list of foster care providers and youth-serving organizations, including homeless shelters and drop-in centers. Connect with family service agencies and schools, including foster care and homeless education liaisons designated in most school districts. Develop fact sheets and user-friendly information for foster youth, and distribute them to these organizations, as well as community colleges and libraries. Start getting the word out and building relationships now. That way, when 2014 rolls around–and it will be here sooner than we imagine–we will be ready, and so will they.

The future of our children’s health care has been made more secure with passage of the ACA. Now it is up to us to ensure that youth in foster care know they have been provided for, just as is true for my own children. It’s one less thing for them to have to worry about, and we can all sleep better at night.