Support healthcare for every child in Virginia

By Matt Van de Graaf and Elizabeth Beverly

Among the hundreds of bills the 2022 General Assembly is considering are a few Senate Act 484 and House bill 1012.

These bills would create a program that would ensure access to health insurance for all children residing in Virginia, regardless of immigration status. It is critical that Virginia seizes this opportunity to cover all children and improve the future of our children and our commonwealth.

One of our patients, “Rosa,” is one of many children who face barriers to accessing health care. She is 5 years old and comes to our student run free clinic for her routine pediatric care. Seeing Rosa and so many other patients like her is one of our happiest experiences as medical students, but it’s also frustrating that so many of these children don’t have access to healthcare with the same ease as their peers. Many of the children we see have undocumented immigration status and need to come to our free clinic because they are not eligible for insurance that would cover healthcare costs in a pediatric office.

Most children living in Virginia obtain health insurance through one of many options. However, there is one important group that is often left out: children who were not born in the United States. Inequalities in access and utilization of health services have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic Millions of children lose health insurance across the country. In total, 4.9 percent of Virginia childrenor almost 100,000 children, are now uninsured.

In Virginia, undocumented children are almost disproportionately affected 50 percent of them have no access to insurance. These children do not have equal access to insurance coverage due to restrictions preventing them from participating in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act marketplace. You are our neighbors and will no doubt contribute to the continued success of our communities. Nevertheless, they are excluded from our health care system.

With a higher proportion of uninsured persons, families with a migration background are often forced to delay care or forgo the necessary care. Actually the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “uninsured children are more likely to have no usual source of care, delay care, or have unmet medical needs than insured children.” Even with common childhood illnesses, these children may experience worse health outcomes and avoidable hospitalizations. We think about what this means for our patients. What would happen to Rosa if she needed urgent medical attention? What if Rosa had an asthma attack? Would her family have trouble getting the medical care she needs? This unequal access to healthcare not only leads to poorer health outcomes for children, but also increases the financial burden on the entire healthcare system.

For now, 10 states and Washington, DC. Use or plan to use only state or county funds to provide health insurance for eligible children regardless of immigration status. New York has been doing this since 1990, and as of 2019, 97.6 percent of the state’s children now have insurance coverage. In 2021, Virginia took an important step forward with the pass legislation The Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources must convene a task force to study and recommend strategies for funding health services for children with undocumented immigration status. Although the working group was a constructive step forward, it will only be meaningful if it results in successful legislation that ensures access to health care for these children.

When one thinks of issues related to children’s health, a quote from Nelson Mandela springs to mind: “There can be no keener revelation of the soul of a society than the way it treats its children.” Our community and our country are built on the foundation that accepting and nurturing those around us makes us stronger.

Children, like Rosa, are at the same time the weakest among us and yet also determine the strength of our future as a society. We have the opportunity to uplift every child by creating a state that ensures health care for all children. In doing so, we nurture the ideas, talents and cultures of every Virginian and look to a future that will be brighter for every individual and community in our Commonwealth. Let’s raise our voices and use our presence to stand up for what is right; Let’s push our representatives (You’ll find yours here) to pass this law that supports health care and access for every child in Virginia. This is Virginia we want to call home.

Matt Van de Graaf is a lifelong resident of Virginia and a fourth-year medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School. He plans to pursue residency in pediatrics after graduation in May. Born and raised in Virginia, Elizabeth Beverly is a third-year medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School with an interest in pediatrics. She is the current Co-Director of Clínica Esperanza, a student-run free clinic dedicated to providing free health care to the uninsured Spanish-speaking population of Hampton Roads.

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