Progress on Children’s Health Coverage is Slowing

The historic progress our nation has made in reducing the rate of uninsured children appears to be slowing down. While we’ve achieved the historically low child uninsured rate of 7.1 percent, our research shows that we’re starting to see some stagnation. Whether this is an aberration or an indication of a more significant trend remains to be seen but with 5.2 million children still uninsured, we can’t afford to ignore any early warning signs.

To see what’s behind the potential loss of momentum on reducing uninsured rates for children, we need to look at what fueled the success. The credit for the long-term improvement in children’s coverage mainly goes to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Children’s health coverage efforts gained momentum in 2009 when CHIP was reauthorized and states received incentives to reach out to more uninsured children and removed red-tape barriers making it easier for families to apply.

Most states have done a good job of improving children’s coverage rates but many have recently hit a plateau. In our new report, “Children’s Coverage at a Crossroads: Progress Slows,” we found from 2011-2013, fewer states made progress in reducing the rate of uninsured children than in previous two-year periods examined since 2008. During this two-year period, 36 states saw no significant improvement in their rate of uninsured children and three states went backwards.

This is an even more troubling sign in light of the fact that CHIP funding expires next year and it’s unclear whether or not Congress will take action quickly to keep this affordable coverage option available to uninsured children. If Congress fails to renew CHIP funding in a timely manner, states will lose the crucial federal funding they need to keep children connected with health coverage.

The ranks of uninsured children could swell by an addition 2 million if CHIP funding is not renewed. Children from working families living on the brink of poverty that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford other types of insurance will be impacted the most. Their situation will be exacerbated by the so-called “family glitch,” which denies their families the Affordable Care Act tax credits intended for them to help them pay for marketplace plans.

Congress can be the game-changer for uninsured children by taking a positive, proactive approach to funding CHIP and not adding new restrictions. Their actions will have considerable impact on whether or not our nation is able to rebuild the momentum for uninsured children in the near future. And continued efforts to implement the Affordable Care Act successfully at both the state and federal levels will also be important.

When children have health insurance, they enjoy better health throughout childhood, do better in school and their families are more financially secure.

Our nation has been on the right track for a generation. We should make sure the next generation of America’s children has the same opportunity to get the health care they need to succeed in school and in life.

Joan Alker is the Executive Director of the Center for Children and Families and a Research Professor at the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy.