When someone suspects that they may have COVID-19, we hope that they immediately take steps to get tested so they know if they should self-isolate. Unfortunately, a growing number of Idaho children have difficulty getting tested and treated because they don’t have access to health care. The risk of spread to health-compromised Idahoans from our children is too high to allow.

Idaho is one of the many states in the U.S. that has an increasing number of uninsured children. The health and welfare of our youngest population is dependent on access to quality, affordable health care. Uninsured children are at risk of not receiving welfare checkups, treatment for illness and injury, and even life-saving care. During a global pandemic, those impacts are exacerbated and can put entire communities at risk.

From 2016 to 2018, the number of uninsured children in the United States rose from 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent. Idaho saw the highest increase in uninsured children from 2017 to 2018 when 7,200 Idaho children lost their health coverage. The unprecedented rise in uninsured minors moved our state further away from ensuring that all of our children can access medical care.

Although voters overwhelmingly approved Medicaid expansion in the last election, our children are not necessarily reaping the benefits. Idaho’s child enrollment in Medicaid dropped 11 percent from December 2017 to February 2019 while private coverage rates remained the same. This means that there was a significant decrease of children covered by Medicaid who were not picked up by private insurance. Those who were not reenrolled in Medicaid and were not picked up by private insurance enrollment are not receiving the essential benefits of health care coverage.

Access to health coverage is vital for children, fostering healthy development in our youth and eliminating barriers to healthy adulthood. Coverage under CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), which is a part of Medicaid coverage, improves health outcomes. Coverage under CHIP also has been proven to increase families’ financial stability and improve children’s school outcomes and earnings later in life. Decreases in the health care coverage of Idaho’s children will result in more sick, unhealthy children and an increased economic burden on families.

These drops in child enrollment are most likely due to increased obstacles to enrollment that are complicated and time consuming. Creating barriers to enrollment in vital health care only stands to hurt our most vulnerable populations. Children should not be in the line of fire because of changes to the enrollment or renewal process. Prioritizing the health coverage access of Idaho’s children is a priority for many but unfortunately, children in Idaho are still experiencing loss of coverage.

Idaho should do two things to improve kids’ health care. First, we should raise the income eligibility levels for children’s health care coverage. Idaho could increase our eligibility to cover more kids and pay for it mostly by bringing home our federal tax dollars. For CHIP in 2020, the federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost. That’s a hard ask this year, but federal reimbursements may increase because of COVID-19, so it might be the perfect time to get more Idaho kids enrolled with health insurance.

We should also make it easier for kids to sign up and stay signed up for coverage. Changes in federal policy over the last two years appear to have made it harder for families to enroll and renew their eligible children in Medicaid and CHIP. Low-income Idahoans, including many that were classified essential workers by the state, have very few other options to get coverage for their children, and we need to fix that.

A key component to reopening the state in a safe way is understanding who has COVID-19 and making sure that they are getting the care they need. It’s inhumane to deny children lifesaving health care, especially if their parents are the people who are making sure grocery stores are stocked and the state keeps running. The state has a responsibility to give parents health care options for their children that won’t leave them bankrupt. All Idaho children deserve access to lifesaving health care.

Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, is serving in his first term as an Idaho state senator.

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