Feds to expand Medicaid for Flint kids, expectant moms

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau
Breeze Harden, 3, breaks into tears as she is tested for lead with her mother Darlene Harden at Eisenhower Elementary in Flint, Michigan on January 26, 2016.

Washington — Federal officials say they will expand Medicaid coverage for Flint families to make additional health care and other services available to thousands of children up to age 21, as well as pregnant women, who have received water from the city’s lead-contaminated system.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that those now eligible include Flint households making up to 400 percent of the poverty level — rather than the usual 130 percent ceiling in Michigan — for those living in Flint between April 2014 and a future date when the water system is deemed safe by Gov. Rick Snyder.

For example, a family of four making up to $97,200 a year or an individual making $47,520 would qualify for the waiver under the eligibility guidelines. The program is normally targeted at the poor.

“Providing important health resources to Flint residents will help us better mitigate the risks of lead exposure and identify long-term health challenges,” Snyder said in a statement. “Together with the health care community, we are working to ensure that Flint residents receive a full range of health and social support today and in the future. I appreciate that our federal partners expedited the review and granted this waiver.”

The health agency estimates that an additional 15,000 children and pregnant women would be eligible for Medicaid coverage and 30,000 current Medicaid beneficiaries would be eligible for expanded services under the waiver agreement with Michigan.

“Expanding Medicaid coverage to tens of thousands of expectant mothers and youth means the most vulnerable citizens served by the Flint water supply can now be connected to a wide range of needed health and developmental services, including lead-blood level monitoring and behavioral health services,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement.

Burwell said in Flint in mid-February that Snyder’s requests a few days earlier for expanded Medicaid assistance in Flint would likely be granted.

Michigan will also set up a state program allowing pregnant women and children up to age 21 in Flint with household incomes over the 400 percent poverty level ceiling to purchase unsubsidized coverage, according to HHS.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member on the Senate’s Finance Subcommittee on Health Care, described the expansion as the “single most meaningful” action for improving health services for Flint families affected by the city’s lead-contamination crisis.

“Thousands of young people up to age 21 — their parents will now have the peace of mind of knowing that they will be able to receive comprehensive health care and other services through Medicaid,” Stabenow said in an interview. “This is really significant as we look at making a longer-term commitment to the children in Flint.”

Medicaid has specific guidelines for screening for lead poisoning, and a case manager is assigned to work with the qualified children, follow their progress and ensure access to other medical, social, nutritional and educational support services, Stabenow said.

“Connecting children to primary care providers who can follow their health as they grow and develop is a critical component of this response and recovery effort,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is leading the federal response and recovery effort in Flint on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS said eligibility for the coverage starts Thursday. Snyder’s office said the state is working to make changes to its eligibility systems, so it can process applications. State officials will then provide information to Flint residents on how to apply for coverage.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver praised the waiver decision, stressing the importance of children and pregnant women getting health care to mitigate their lead exposure and “any negative effects.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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