By Rena Malai, News staff
An estimated 25,000 youths age out of the foster care system every year, and they face a variety of issues when they no longer have that support system. Social workers who specialize in this area say health care is among the main concerns.
The Affordable Care Act is helping to alleviate this problem by extending the age that these young people have access to health care to 26. And social workers play a large role in making sure they are signed up for this benefit, said Shadi Houshyar, vice president of Child Welfare Policy at First Focus in Washington, D.C.
As of January, the Affordable Care Act mandates Medicaid coverage for former foster care children, a change that Houshyar calls extremely important. Although states decide individually on expansion of Medicaid coverage through the ACA, she said, this does not apply to the Medicaid benefit available to foster youth.
“Typically when they age out, or soon after, most foster care youth have to figure out a way to get health care,” Houshyar said. “Now that the ACA provides youth the benefit to stay on their parents’ coverage up to the age of 26, the parities also exist for foster youth who may not have that support system.”
These young adults have high rates of being uninsured and often have complex medical and behavioral health care needs, said NASW Senior Practice Associate Stacy Collins.
“The ACA provisions improve the odds that this population will continue to receive the health care they rely on, and social workers understand the importance of extending Medicaid eligibility for youth aging out of foster care,” Collins said.
Houshyar said enrollment for former foster youth has been slow since January, partly because many don’t know the Medicaid benefit exists. But social workers can help spread the word, she said.
“Social workers need to be alerted of this benefit,” Houshyar said. “Those who work in this area have contact with youth, they have contact with youth no longer in caseloads, and they know the right outreach strategies for finding youth who can benefit from this.”
NASW Senior Practice Associate Roxana Torrico Meruvia said foster youth in need of help often reach out to their previous social workers, which puts them in a position to help.
“ … Social workers are in a position to inform former foster youth that they are eligible for Medicaid coverage until the age of 26,” she said.
Houshyar said social workers can help connect agencies within their communities — alerting child welfare agencies, Medicaid agencies and foster youth alumni. And if the right training is provided for navigators and caseworkers, the process for these youths will be much more efficient.
“We want states to create systems that will ensure former foster youth can easily enroll and renew,” Houshyar said. “It’s important to create these systems for easy enrollment as foster youth don’t often have access to personal paper records.”
Most young people age out of foster care at age 18, with a few rare cases at age 21. Houshyar said all support often stops once they leave the system. Making sure these kids have the health care coverage they need is a way to take care of them, she said, even if they are not in foster care anymore.
“It’s a time of real transition for them when they age out,” she said. “We certainly don’t abandon our own children, and we wouldn’t expect to do that for foster youth either. Providing them with health care is an important part of providing needed support as they transition into adulthood.”
For more information on First Focus, visit: www.firstfocus.net/
From the May 2014 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story after logging in.