RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A new report states the rate of uninsured children in North Carolina increased for the fourth straight year in 2019.
The findings, compiled by the The Center for Children & Families (CCF), part of the Health Policy Institute at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, spell out troubling trends that have been felt throughout much of the country.
"I didn't expect last year to be so bad, especially because we had such a strong economy," said Joan Alker, the executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children & Families and author of the report.
After hitting a low of 4.6% child uninsured rate in 2015, North Carolina clocked in at 5.8% in 2019, slightly above the national average of 5.7%. North Carolina ranks 33rd in the country (including Washington, D.C.) in child uninsured rate. Alker believes one policy change can have a major impact in the state.
"The data is very clear. States that have expanded Medicaid, their child uninsured rate is about half as high as states that have not," said Alker.
North Carolina is one of twelve states that have not adopted Medicaid expansion; Missouri and Oklahoma have both adopted expansion, but have not yet implemented it.
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Outside Medicaid expansion, Alker pointed to a jarring difference in Hispanic/Latino children uninsured rates compared to their counterparts as a key concern. In North Carolina, 13.3% of Hispanic/Latino children do not have health insurance. She believes the difference could be due to federal policies that have targeted immigrants and their families.
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"It's creating a lot of fear about interacting with the federal government. So as a consequence, children who are eligible for Medicaid, their parents may not be enrolling them," Alker said.
Michelle Hughes, the Executive Director of NC Child, a non-profit advocacy group, notes lacking health insurance can have long-term ramifications.
"Children's health insurance coverage is really the first step for children to be able to access the medical care that they need to be healthy. So immunizations, developmental screening for early intervention services, all the care that young children and our youth need in order to grow up and thrive," said Hughes.
Those check-ups are particularly important for children under six years old. In North Carolina, 4.7% of children less than six years old are uninsured.
"Getting those services in place right away ensures children that those children are more successful, they stay in school, and they're more likely to graduate," Hughes said.
These trends are likely to be exacerbated by the financial fallout stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think the words I would use are disappointed and alarmed. This data is pre-COVID data. So this loss of health insurance coverage for children happened during a very healthy economy and very low unemployment in North Carolina. So if we're seeing this kind of loss of health insurance coverage before the pandemic hit, we are very worried about what these numbers are going to look like during 2020," Hughes said.
"The fact that unemployment was so low and so many children were losing their health insurance - very troubling," said Alker.
The CCF report found 44% of children in North Carolina received health insurance coverage via their parent or guardian's employer.
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From 2008 - 2015, the rate of uninsured children in North Carolina fell year-over-year, dropping from 9.9% to 4.6%. In a shorter period, 2013-2015, North Carolina performed better than the national average.
Nationally, trends fell from 2008-2012, were stagnant in 2013, and then fell again from 2014-2016.