Medicaid Helps Babies Get What They Need to Thrive

It bears repeating: The first three years of a child’s life shape the rest. During that short time period, babies and toddlers form more than one million new neural connections every second. Their positive development depends on nurturing relationships and environments that promote health and learning. When they don’t get what their brains need to thrive—especially responsive and nurturing relationships with adults—it can impact their long-term health, educational, and social success.

We’ve heard a lot about helping people pull themselves out of poverty from the Administration—an investment and focus on infants and toddlers could help these children and their families thrive in the short and the long-term. And with nearly 50% of children age three and under relying on Medicaid or CHIP for health coverage, we can’t ignore the opportunities available to reach low-income children and their families.

We are thrilled to join ZERO TO THREE and other national and state partners to amplify the needs of infants and toddlers through the Think Babies™ campaign. We’ve been doing more work in the past few years to identify the ways Medicaid and CHIP can be leveraged to more effectively support young children and their families, so this partnership is a great fit! (see here, here, and watch for much resources to come.)

What does this mean for our work, specifically? We will highlight the work at the national and state levels, and highlight areas where Medicaid/CHIP can play a key role.

Two of the campaign priorities especially align with our work:  

  • Healthy Emotional Development. We need to reach parents with resources and services they want and need to nurture their baby’s healthy development and set them up for a healthy life.
  • Strong Physical Health and Nutrition. We need to ensure families have access to nutrition and other health services that can give them a healthy start in life.

Where and how can Medicaid play a role in ensuring healthy emotional development and strong health supports for young children and their families? We could go on and on… but for starters:

Expand Medicaid to parents and other adults. State leaders seeking to maximize the potential of infant-toddler brain development should start with one question: Has the state expanded Medicaid? Since relationships are key to children’s development, covering parents matters. A parent with health coverage has less financial stress, better access to needed health care, and the tools to be an even better parent. As mom to a 7- and 2-year old, I know I’m a better parent when I’m healthier and less stressed! This one is a “no brainer” (pun intended).

Invest in prevention and early intervention models that we know work. We talk a lot about the opportunity for health coverage to catch and treat disease or delays early, before they become problems later—and we have more to do to ensure this happens. Investing in infant-early childhood mental health or home visiting, for example, positively influence those relationships young children need for their healthy development. Medicaid pays for some of these services in some states through a variety of strategies—but with just under 50% of young children in Medicaid, there are likely opportunities to do more. (While we’re at it, there are also opportunities to look at models to serve children and families together, as some states have done with maternal depression screening under a child’s Medicaid number.)

Make sure Medicaid’s pediatric benefit (EPSDT) is living up to its promise. Medicaid’s pediatric benefit for children, Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT), was designed to provide children with preventive and diagnostic services and ALL medically necessary treatment and services that can be covered under federal Medicaid law to correct and ameliorate health conditions. Stakeholders should examine how well EPSDT is fulfilling its mission for children in their state. Are children getting all of their recommended screens and referrals? And resulting medically necessary services? Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to know, based on very limited data. Some state advocates are working with Medicaid managed care organizations to influence this, others are seeking to elevate EPSDT in state Medicaid reform efforts. EPSDT should be the place where every young, low-income child gets their health needs met. Let’s get the data, track it, and find out where the gaps are for young children.

We will have a lot more to say on this topic but for now we’re thrilled to join the effort to place policymakers’ attention on our nation’s youngest children. We have a chance to create a world in which babies and parents have what they need to thrive and reach their fullest potential.

Want to learn more about the Think Babies™ campaign? Sign up for campaign updates here.

Elisabeth Wright Burak is a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.