Teenagers who could sign up for Medicaid, but don't

In Michigan, there are more than 71,000 infants signed up for Medicaid. By age 18, there are fewer than 3,000 kids signed up for Medicaid.

Michigan's governor, Rick Synder, is on a trade mission to Asia. But as soon as he gets back, he plans to sign his state's Medicaid expansion bill into law. After a long fight over Obamacare, the state will offer Medicaid to nearly 500,000 low-income adults starting in late March or early April 2014.

But the question is: Will these folks take advantage of this benefit? In Michigan, like many states around the country, there are large numbers of teenagers who could be signed up for Medicaid. But they aren’t.

Earlier this year, Jacquise Purifoy was laid off from her job as an attorney. Until about two months ago, she and her daughter went without health insurance.

“You know, I don’t know,” she says. “I guess I just buried my head in the sand a little bit, which was dangerous.”

Purifoy probably could have enrolled her 17-year-old daughter Jasmine up for Michigan’s Medicaid programs, but she didn’t. She was too proud and says she would have felt guilty about trying to access Medicaid. She was also hopeful her private insurance from the new job would kick in soon.

Then she got a call from Jasmine, who has asthma and a heart condition.

“When she called me from school saying, 'You have to get me now,' I knew that it was urgent,” Purifoy recalls. “I knew I didn’t have health insurance; it was really life or death.  Am I going to let this child die, essentially, or am I going to get a god-awful bill? And of course I’m going to choose protecting my daughter.”

Luckily, nothing was going on with Jasmine’s heart. But it cost around $1,800 to find that out. Purifoy is paying off the bill in monthly installments, and Jasmine now has health insurance.

But across the country there are hundreds of thousands of teenagers eligible for Medicaid that aren’t insured. It’s a trend providers like Lori Partin are familiar with.

“When they get to a certain age it doesn’t become as important to them or maybe to their parent or guardian to keep the insurance up,” she says. “They seem to be healthy they don’t really need the medical care.”

Partin works at The Corner Health Center, a health clinic for adolescents in Ypsilanti, Mich.

In Michigan, there are more than 71,000 infants signed up for Medicaid. By age 18, there are fewer than 3,000 kids signed up for Medicaid. Nobody really knows why this is happening.

Some families might be able to work more and make more money as their kids age, so that they don’t need Medicaid. Some of it could be parent confusion about age and income limits. There are also requirements to re-enroll every year.

To get past this, Michigan is trying to work with school districts to enroll more teens under a new federal grant.

Jaquise Purifoy says if she could talk directly to other parents, this is what she’d say, “Hey, this resource is available.  Regardless of what you may be going through, your children deserve health insurance.  It can save your life.”

It can save your life, and Purifoy says, it will save you a lot of money.

About the author

Sarah Alvarez is a producer and reporter at Michigan Radio where she works on the State of Opportunity project.

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