Sarah Leetham: Medicaid is more important than ever for low-income families

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Health Policy Project, hundreds of citizens and advocates of the governor's plan to expand Medicaid attend a rally on March 5, 2015.

The Medicaid program will celebrate its 55th anniversary on July 30, the date that Congress authorized the Social Security Act in 1965.

Medicaid serves as a crucial lifeline for many low-income families, individuals, people with disabilities and pregnant women, and is a critical safety net program in Utah, now more than ever as we face a pandemic. Utahns are suffering the economic effects of COVID-19 like the rest of our nation.

A recent study showed between February and June of this year, 25,000 Utahns became uninsured due to losing their job. With Medicaid, losing a job does not have to mean losing health care. With Medicaid, families can get needed care without risking crippling medical debt, so they keep contributing to our economy.

Individuals who have Medicaid coverage are also more likely than the uninsured to have a regular source of care and obtain their preventive care services during the year. Families who have this consistent access to care are also more likely to keep up on child wellness exams and preventative care.

Medicaid coverage can impact the trajectory of health across a lifespan, for the better. For most American children living in poverty, Medicaid is their only source of health coverage and access to primary care.

Medicaid has emerged as a critical tool in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Hispanic, Native American and other diverse communities are over-represented among the uninsured, and we have seen the devastating effects of these inequities on COVID-19 infection and mortality rates – as well as the economic effects of the pandemic on frontline and essential workers, many of whom are people of color. According to Utah’s Department of Health COVID-19 data, Utah’s Hispanic population accounts for roughly 40% of the state’s COVID-19 confirmed cases, but only makes up 14.2% of the state’s population.

A continuing issue in the Medicaid program, is finding and successfully enrolling eligible people. The paperwork and follow-ups needed to enroll can be difficult. Take Care Utah, a program of the Utah Health Policy Project, which coordinates a statewide network of health insurance and Medicaid enrollment assisters that help eliminate enrollment barriers and advocate for people who need coverage.

Take Care Utah works in Utah’s communities that have the most need such as Hispanic and immigrant families, people experiencing homelessness, and the recently incarcerated. But many do not know that our services are free to anyone that needs them, and we are currently operating remotely — assisting clients online and over the phone.

Enrollment assisters are experts in Medicaid eligibility, and we also get to see the direct impact access to affordable health care can have on our state. One such instance comes from a previous client that came to Take Care Utah for assistance. After obtaining Medicaid coverage, she was able to get the dental treatment she had been needing for years. She was in desperate need of reparative treatment, and once she got it, she finally had the confidence to apply for employment opportunities and sit for interviews. Addressing individual health needs opens the possibility to care for other individual disparities that may be keeping someone from a better life. Medicaid makes this possible.

Medicaid’s infrastructure helps those most in need and has 55 years’ experience strengthening the health of our communities. Amidst the uncertainty and hardship facing our neighbors, Take Care Utah is proud to bring Medicaid to people around our state, and grateful for 55 years of the safety net it provides, especially in times like these.

Sarah Leetham

Sarah Leetham is the Healthy Kids Program director at the Utah Health Policy Project.