New Resources Underscore Importance of Adult Health Coverage to Young Children’s Well-Being

The news on the health and economic crises remains harrowing. The political debates about the best ways to address both can be numbing. Racism was already a public health crisis in the minds of many—the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated what was not fully seen or acknowledged before. But it’s the poorest families, many of whom are also families of color, who bear the brunt of this stress, those already in or on the brink of a health or economic crisis when the pandemic hit.

The nation’s youngest children are at particular risk, as their parents adapt or react to the new stresses. We know that the relationship between parents and caregivers and their children impacts their healthy development—those relationships are the foundation for future health.

We also know that health coverage for parents and other adults is a necessary first step to keeping them healthy so they can successfully in engage with and care for their children, which promotes the early relational health necessary for healthy child development. Several new resources offer fodder to encourage expanding Medicaid in the 12 states that have yet to take up the option

During the transition to parenthood, primary caregivers experience brain chemistry changes right alongside young children’s brain development, underscoring the need for access to affordable health care. While there’s a lot of attention—rightly so—on pregnant women and moms, a new report showcases the importance of the broader set of caregivers, including fathers and nonbiological parents, whose brain chemistry changes alongside newborns, just like biological moms. The research summary from Aspen Ascend notes:

“Having an effective caregiver present, regardless of degree of biological relation to the child, benefits a child’s well-being. […] the transition to parenting is a sensitive period that provides a unique opportunity to support children and the adults in their lives together. The recent research highlighted in this report present an immense opportunity to leverage the neural plasticity during early life and the transition to parenthood to effect changes that can improve outcomes for parents and children alike.”

More on this fascinating work in this video

Coverage for parents of young children improved with the ACA, then stalled, leaving 4.4 million parents of children under age 6 uninsured in 2017/18, according to a hot-off-the-press Urban Institute report. Four million young children live with at least one uninsured parent. As we’ve said time and time again, expanding Medicaid in the remaining states could also bring in more of these kids with the welcome mat effect. We’ll have more to say on this next week as we release some state numbers of uninsured young children under 6.

Two new reports expressly call for Medicaid expansion as one research-backed step that can help children prenatal to age 3. Don’t just take our word for it. In addition to ZERO TO THREE’s annual State of Babies Yearbook released each spring, several groups focused on the needs of infants and toddlers are raising the importance of expansion. The University of Texas Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center’s new Prenantal-to-3 State Policy Roadmap highlights Medicaid expansion as a means to support the nation’s youngest children. The report rates state progress based in part on the adoption and implementation of expansion. (Another policy area calls for reduced administrative burden—another of our greatest hits!). And CLASP’s new paper A Pandemic within a Pandemic: How Coronavirus and Systemic Racism Are Harming Infants and Toddlers of Color also calls for Medicaid expansion as an immediate action to combat the exacerbated effects of COVID-19 on young children of color.

After the 2012 Supreme Court decision making the ACA Medicaid expansion a state option, we worked hard to make sure the link between adult health coverage and children’s healthy development was clear. We now have mounting evidence to show for it. What more will it take to convince leaders this is a necessary step to help every child get off to the best start possible?

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