A bump up for kids’ coverage in Arkansas

A new federal law provides an opportunity for Arkansas to expand children’s health coverage while spending less at the state level. We need to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity while also ensuring that any cost savings are re-invested in Arkansas children.

Last month, Congress passed a bill to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which in Arkansas is known as ARKids First B. Passage of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act demonstrated an overwhelming bipartisan commitment to provide children with the health coverage needed to thrive and grow up healthy.

The new law includes two additional years of funding for CHIP without any structural changes or rollbacks. It was a big win.

It also includes important opportunities for states by including funding for a 23 percentage-point increase to the federal CHIP match rate that will begin on October 1.  In Arkansas, that means the federal match rate will rise from 79 percent to 100 percent. So instead of Arkansas kicking in $1 for every $4 the feds contribute to ARKids First, the federal contribution will pick up the whole tab.

In other words, Arkansas will no longer have to contribute state funds to the program.

The increase is estimated to yield about $25 million in additional federal funds for ARKids in Fiscal Year 2016 alone, freeing up state revenue. We don’t want to see that funding spirited away for other purposes, however.  This is an opportunity for Arkansas to re-invest state dollars in other proven strategies to improve children’s health.

It’s also an opportunity to extend coverage to all the children in Arkansas who should qualify for ARKids but aren’t covered today.

One important group that is largely left out includes children who are lawfully residing in Arkansas but who are not citizens. We should join the 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have already chosen to cover this population. In Arkansas, this includes children born in the Marshall Islands. Because we haven’t taken this coverage option and because of the unique nature of their immigration status (they are allowed to move here legally without a visa), Marshallese children aren’t eligible for ARKids no matter how long they’ve been in the United States, meaning these children are possibly missing out on the health care services they need to meet important developmental milestones. Getting the care they need can keep these kids healthy and able go to school each day ready to learn

We should cover them, and now we have no excuse not to. Our estimates have suggested that it would cost less than $1 million to cover this group of children.  The new federal matching rate will cover the whole cost. There has never been a better time for Arkansas to take the next important step towards ensuring all children in our state have access to health care that ensures they grow up to realize their full potential.