Health care for foster youth, if they can find it

Physician's Assistant Brian Kohuth pulls while trying to set Austin Bombardner's leg fracture in the emergency room of the non-profit Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colorado.

Just a few months ago health care navigators wanted desperately to get young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. There was an all-out advertising blitz aimed towards young people between the ages of 18 and 34 to get them to sign up for health insurance.

More than 6 hours of Obamacare commercials on YouTube? That smells like desperation. 

But it seems like everybody forgot something. Not LeBron James, not  Zak Galifianakas, and not JLo's mom or the other famous people who made commercials for Obamacare mentioned the part of the law that lets young people who aged out of foster care sign up for extended Medicaid, and keep it until age 26. 

Kimberly Waller researches the ACA and foster care. She says the provision came about as an issue of fairness. "Advocates started realizing hey, what happens when the state's your parent?" she says.

When the state is your parent, you should now be able to get on their plan -- that's Medicaid -- until age 26. But states don't have to do any outreach about the provision. Waller says many young people don’t know they’re eligible, and that, "a right is only empowering if you know about it."

Kamille Tynes aged out of foster care in Michigan. She’s 23 now and in college. She’s good at navigating the ins and outs of government programs. Even she found the process confusing.

"I initially applied through, what is it, the market health care something website," she remembers.

That would be the heathcare.gov. Every state is different, but in Michigan, kids who age out of foster care need to apply for healthcare through the agency that runs foster care. (It's not an intuitive process. If you need it, here are tips and a more detailed walk through the application).

For her part, Tynes just kept trying to apply. "I was told how you mention that you were in the foster care system and you aged out," she says. But, "I got denied."

She's not really sure why that happened, because she does qualify. Tynes just wants to go to the doctor and not rack up debt to do it. Former foster care youth like her have a lot more health care needs than others their age. But Tynes hasn't been to the doctor in over two years.

In Michigan, foster care advocates are working to draw attention to the glitches in the sign up process. Tynes did end up getting some help on her application from an advocate she knows.

It made a difference. Kamille Tynes sighs and says she's "finally!" insured. But she also laughs happily as she mimes holding her new health insurance card up high. She's already made her first doctor's appointment. 

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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