Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lawmakers consider proposal to extend health care assistance to undocumented children

 Nemours Children's Hospital
Delaware Public Media
Nemours Children's Hospital

State lawmakers are considering the creation of a new health care assistance program for children who don’t qualify for Medicaid and Delaware's Childrens' Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — particularly the 5,000 or more undocumented children living in the state.

State Rep. Krista Griffith’s original proposal to establish a state-funded health care assistance program open to undocumented children faltered last year, in large part because of its sizable price tag.

Griffith reintroduced the proposal this year with some modifications.

This year, the bill includes a directive to the Department of Health and Social Services to make use of federal funding available for prenatal care to extend health care coverage to low-income pregnant women regardless of their immigration status.

And unlike last year's proposal, the program outlined in Griffith's latest bill would not include coverage for inpatient hospitalizations. Griffith says because hospitals are already required to provide no-cost care as nonprofits, inpatient hospitalization is already available to uninsured children.

But Delaware hospitals spend more than $700 million annually caring for uninsured patients, and Griffith argues providing coverage for preventative care will reduce the number of children using an emergency room as their primary health care option, thereby reducing overall cost and improving quality of life for undocumented families.

“We ultimately need to start giving children the ability to see dentists and doctors so that routine issues can be treated and so that they do not have to go to the emergency room, which is costly to the state," she said.

The proposal is backed by most Delaware health care providers; Nemours Children's Health spokesperson Kristen Dwyer points to the example of an undocumented patient whose only current health care option is long-term inpatient hospitalization.

“She has a complex neurodegenerative disorder and has been hospitalized and will have lifelong medical needs," she said. "Although her hospitalization is provided at no charge, there is no home nursing support or ongoing routine care available because of her immigration status."

The program would only be open to families who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid or CHIP, meaning their household incomes fall below 212 percent of the federal poverty line.

The bill received broad support within the House Health and Human Development committee last week, though some lawmakers expressed anxiety about the potential cost of the program. The Controller General's office estimates the program would cost $4 million if introduced in 2024, rising to more than $15 million by 2026.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee, where it will likely face more scrutiny.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.