Georgia lawmakers move to get more children insured



Tens of thousands of uninsured Georgia children could gain a pathway to health coverage under a House bill moving through the General Assembly.

If approved, the state would automatically enroll many kids receiving food stamps in Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled.

About 7% of children in Georgia are uninsured, a higher percentage than the national average. A majority of kids eligible for food stamps are also eligible for Medicaid because of their family income level, but many are not enrolled in the government health program.

House Bill 163, which passed the House Health and Human Services Committee earlier this week, would direct the state Department of Community Health to submit the new enrollment mechanism — known as the express late — to federal officials for approval.

Other states, including Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina, have already adopted the express lane — and have increased coverage of uninsured children, said the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who’s chairwoman of the health committee.

“This is especially important for people in rural areas’' because they often lack broadband or cellphone service or transportation to a child welfare office, Cooper said. “We are delaying children from getting health care when they are eligible to have it,’' she told her committee.

Medicaid enrollment in Georgia has surged during the pandemic — including thousands of children — but experts believe that a large number of Georgia families still lack health insurance coverage due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The new plan can save the state money on processing separate applications, said Tom Rawlings, head of the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, which handles enrollment for both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and Medicaid.

It costs Georgia $35 a case to add a child in one program to another, Rawlings said. The eligibility move, if approved, “saves a lot of time and expense.’'

It can also increase early preventive care for kids, he added, and keep children from needing hospitalization or state services such as foster care. Many children come under state supervision “because they’re not getting the medical or behavioral health care they need.’'

Children’s advocacy groups, medical provider groups, state officials and others have enthusiastically supported the change, which they say could lead to up to 70,000 uninsured children in Georgia getting health coverage.

“With nearly 200,000 children lacking health insurance, state eligibility workers putting in long hours and health care providers struggling to keep up, we are excited that this policy can help address all three of these challenges at once,’' said Erica Fener Sitkoff of Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group that brought the idea to Cooper. “Most important, it will make it easier for struggling families to both feed their children and not worry about whether or not they can afford to take care of their children’s health needs.’'

Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Savannah Republican and member of the House health committee, said, “We don’t need barriers in any way, shape or form to getting children the care that they need.’'

Studies show kids who get Medicaid go further in school and are healthier and more successful financially as adults compared with those who have no insurance or inconsistent coverage, Laura Colbert of the advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future told the House panel.

After creating the express lane, Alabama now has an uninsured rate of just 3.5%, said Callan Wells of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.

“Surely we can do better” than that in Georgia, Cooper replied.