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Cutting Medicaid hurts all kids, rich and poor

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Like any energetic 7-year-old, your daughter loves running around outside, playing with her friends and kicking around a soccer ball. So you’re concerned when she starts losing energy. She looks pale and refuses to eat. You take her to the pediatrician, and her test results show the worst: she has leukemia. Once you work through the shock, you do you what any parent would do: find the best possible care to get her through it. But where do you go?

Health care for children is different from care for adults. Treating kids requires doctors who are experienced with their unique needs, and according to Stanford pediatricians Paul Wise and Lisa Chamberlain, this experience is developed and lives in children’s hospitals.

And these facilities are highly dependent on Medicaid.

“Children are the poorest segment of the United States population,” said Wise, a Stanford Health Policy core faculty member.

Nearly one out of every five children lives below the poverty line, according to the United States Census Bureau. Very few children need extensive health care, but of those that do, about 44 percent rely on Medicaid or other public insurance programs.

Because so many of their patients use Medicaid, these children’s hospitals need reimbursements from the program to support their services. Without this income, some might have to downsize or even shut down, and if they do, services would suffer for all children.

“If you want to kill rich kids, cut Medicaid,” said Wise. “If you’re a rich kid with a serious chronic problem, you’re going to want facilities that provide high-quality care. Those facilities are intensely dependent on Medicaid.”

If the American Health Care Act (the Republican replacement for Obamacare) passes Congress, Medicaid will convert to a per capita cap system. Instead of providing coverage to all who meet its criteria — which is primarily based on income and need — the federal government would cap how much money the federal government could provide each person.

Wise and Chamberlain worry that a set amount allocated for states or individuals would not be able to keep up with health industry inflation, causing payments to effectively decrease over time. They are also concerned that children would be particularly affected by these changes because their medical needs are so different from adults’.

“Caring for seriously ill children requires a wide range of services and specialists, from pediatric surgeons to speech therapists to hospital teachers who make sure kids don’t fall behind,” said Chamberlain. “In pediatrics we work as a team — and cutting Medicaid will reduce our ability to do that.”

Not only would the funds available for child health coverage erode, but according to Wise, the focus on adult health concerns in the emerging Medicaid changes could, without immediate attention, undermine 40 years of progress in developing strong, regionalized child health systems.

Providing for children’s needs should be simple because their expenditures are relatively low. Child health care makes up less than nine percent of all federal health expenditures in the United States.

But because the health policy debate in the United States focuses on older populations, children are often left out.

“I think it’s really important that we have these conversations about the unique needs of children,” said Chamberlain.

Wise and Chamberlain hope to alert policy-makers to the fiscal needs of children and how they affect care for all kids.

“Our elected officials have to cope with a wide range of issues, and they welcome engaged professionals exchanging ideas about active legislation,” said Chamberlain. “Those conversations really matter – now is the time to let them hear what we think.”

To hear more from Wise and Chamberlain about child health and Medicaid, listen to their podcast on World Class: