BOISE, Idaho — Since the onset of COVID-19, medical professionals have noticed a trend of Idaho children missing routine health checkups and now fear more could soon be uninsured.
On Wednesday, a group of doctors and health policy experts met at the statehouse to address state officials concerning patterns in childhood medical access. The group is organized by Idaho Voices for Children, a nonprofit data collecting organization that uses research to develop draft public policy.
IVFC health policy associate Hillarie Hagen said the initiative started about a year ago as part of Idaho Kids Covered — a project dedicated to increased awareness about insurance coverage and care needs for Gem State children.
During the pandemic, St. Luke's pediatrician and Idaho Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics member Dr. Noreem Womack said the state's health care system has been a "roller coaster of challenges."
"We have seen many kids fall behind on routine well-child visits and immunizations. In my recent practice, it is not uncommon to see a child that has not had a checkup for more than two years," she said. "We have parents who are struggling to do what's best for their children but face barriers like unaffordable health premiums. And when these families can't get their children to checkups, diagnoses get missed, ranging from asthma to mental health problems to autism."
Womack added that Idaho's preexisting pediatric shortage intensifies the situation.
"Even before the recent stresses to our health care system, Idaho already had the least number of pediatricians per 100,000 children than any other state," she said.
On top of the group's concerns about routine medical care, Idaho Kids Covered highlighted the growing presence of Idaho children struggling with mental and behavioral health issues. Through IVFC's research, Hagen said they've found nearly one in five teens experienced "major depression" over the last year. She said two-thirds of those with depression did not receive any medical services or treatment.
Family Medicine Specialist Dr. Megan Haughton confirmed Hagen's concerns on Wednesday when describing her work at St. Luke's Nampa and Boise facilities.
"In September and again in January, we had a fair amount of mental health cases in our system, and in really young people too ... like 10, 11 and 12-years-old. Which is a little disheartening," Haughton said.
She said that regular check-ins with pediatric patients are critical because those are formative years when providers can catch signs of future health problems.
"It's super important in Idaho, especially because we do have one of the least amounts of access to pediatricians and behavioral health specialists," Haughton said. "It's particularly (important) in mental health to catch earlier on because it might take longer to find the kid's help because we don't have as much access."
Ensuring that Idaho's children have access to medical care and insurance is the mission of Idaho Kids Covered, Hagen said.
She said it is a present concern for two reasons:
- Before the pandemic, approximately 24,000 Idaho children lacked health insurance
- With federal COVID-19 emergency protections preventing Medicaid participants from being unenrolled are expected to expire later this year
"When children are uninsured, they're more likely to have unmet health needs, including missed well-child checks and unfilled prescriptions," she said. "Keeping kids consistently covered through Medicaid or health coverage is crucial to maintaining their health stability and supporting them to grow up in a healthy, strong environment and community."
While at the statehouse on Wednesday, Idaho Kids Covered presented several recommended actions to state officials that they believe could address childhood health coverage issues.
The recommendations were:
- Invest additional federal COVID-19 relief dollars into mental and behavioral health care programs before the grant funding expires
- Extend Medicaid renewal deadlines to allow families more time to re-enroll after the emergency protections lapse
- Increase outreach, enrollment, and customer service support for families looking to re-enroll in Medicaid protections
- Implement new public policies that aim to reduce the number of uninsured Idaho children, like increasing income eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the national average