Underinsurance Rises Among US Children

Heidi Splete

December 09, 2021

The proportion of U.S. children who are underinsured for health care increased by 3.4% from 2016 to 2019, reflecting approximately 2.4 million underinsured children, based on data from the National Survey of Children's Health.

Children with inconsistent or inadequate medical coverage are more likely to forgo medical care, including preventive well-child visits, and to have unmet medical needs such as prescription medications, Justin Yu, MD, of the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and colleagues wrote. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Healthy People 2030 guidelines have endorsed increasing the proportion of children with adequate coverage, recent studies suggest that advances in insuring children in the wake of the Affordable Care Act have stalled, and trends in child insurance have not been well described, the researchers said.

In a study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from the combined 2016-2019 datasets of the National Survey of Children's Health, a survey funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Adequate insurance was defined as a composite with three questions; whether the benefits "usually" or "always" meet the child's needs; the benefits "usually" or "always" allow the child to see needed providers; and whether out-of-pocket expenses are either absent or "usually" or "always" reasonable.

Overall, the proportion of children with underinsurance increased from 30.6% in 2016 to 34.0% in 2019.

Underinsurance was significantly associated with increased health complexity and private insurance, with adjusted odds ratios of 1.9 and 3.5, respectively. In addition, underinsurance was significantly associated with child age of 6 years or older, non-Black racial identity, U.S. nonnative status, and a family income of at least 100% above the Federal Poverty Level. Notably, underinsurance grew significantly among White children living in "middle-income" families, the researchers said.

The increase in underinsurance was driven primarily by increased insurance inadequacy, which rose from 24.8% to 27.9% over the study period. The increase in insurance inadequacy was described primarily as unreasonable out-of-pocket medical expenses, according to the survey respondents.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the inability to show causality or to describe changes in outcomes for individual children, the researchers noted. Other limitations include the reliance on parent reports and the lack of a definitive definition of underinsurance.

However, the results highlight the ongoing problem of underinsurance in children, and the need to address the factors that contribute to inadequate insurance for children, the researchers said.

"Our data, demonstrating a shift from public to private insurance that is more likely to be inadequate, in conjunction with existing literature linking Medicaid/CHIP [Children's Health Insurance Program] coverage with improved access to medical care as well as improved long-term outcomes in adulthood, should give policy makers and payers pause as they contemplate strategies to improve child health," they concluded.

Nationwide Action Needed to Fight Underinsurance

The authors should be commended for highlighting the disturbing trend in underinsurance among children in the United States, Tim Joos, MD, a Seattle-based clinician with a combination internal medicine/pediatrics practice, said in an interview.

"With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the population of uninsured and underinsured had shrunk quite a bit, but in the past few years, the numbers are growing again. This population has often been called the working poor; the vast majority are legal residents who make too much to qualify for Medicaid/CHIP programs, and whose employers don't offer affordable robust health care coverage," Joos said.

"These families have to make the risky decisions of how much of the family budget to spend on insurance plans, often to the detriment of their own and their children's health," he explained. "If you believe the old adage about 'an ounce of prevention,' then the money we spend on preserving the health of our children will more than pay for itself in benefits of increased productivity and health care savings in the 1-2 decades later when they reach adulthood. It is time for us as a nation to come up with a more comprehensive baseline coverage for all pediatric patients and take away any barriers for families to access basic health care for children."

The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Joos had no financial conflicts to disclose and serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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