By Joel Dodge (@joeldodge07)
Imagine if the United States guaranteed high-quality health care for all American children. A “Medicare for Kids” program would do just that: giving all young Americans automatic coverage in a government health plan modeled off of Medicare. Such a program would help millions of American families, and as new polling shows, it has overwhelming public support.
The candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have been debating the merits of creating a Medicare-for-All system to provide health care coverage for all Americans. Yet whether or not Medicare-for-All ultimately comes to fruition, there is one logical place to start expanding coverage: America’s children. As the People’s Policy Project think tank recently proposed, children could be automatically enrolled into a new Medicare-style health care program and receive a comprehensive set of health benefits with no cost-sharing from birth until early adulthood.
Recent polling by Data for Progress found broad popular support for Medicare for Kids. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed support the idea, while just 27 percent are opposed. Among registered Democrats, Medicare for Kids is a no-brainer, garnering 80 percent support, including 60 percent who strongly support the idea. Medicare for Kids also has majority support (52 percent) among independents. And it has particularly strong support among African-Americans, who back Medicare for Kids by a 50 point margin.
This support makes sense given the situation on the ground for many American families. Nearly 4 million children lack health insurance in the United States today. And after years of progress toward getting more children covered, the uninsured rate for children actually ticked up from 4.7 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2017, despite a relatively strong economy. Experts attribute that backsliding to bureaucratic hurdles for families to get and stay enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and to attacks on these health care programs by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress.
Even that snapshot understates the problem, however. Because children typically depend on a parent for health insurance, their coverage can be lost or disrupted each time parents change jobs -- a fairly frequent occurrence for most working-age adults.
Medicare for Kids would solve these problems by creating an automatic program that lasts throughout childhood and adolescence without requiring any active enrollment by families. It would eliminate the disruptions that children currently face in their care from being yanked in and out of employer-sponsored coverage, Affordable Care Act coverage, Medicaid, CHIP, and uninsurance. And by pooling all children in a single health insurance program, Medicare for Kids would be durable enough to resist conservative attacks. Families would be free to pay for additional private or employer-sponsored insurance for their children if they so choose. But Medicare for Kids would guarantee a baseline of high-quality coverage that every American child would have as a right.
For some perspective, over 40 percent of all American children are already covered by public health insurance programs. The rest could be covered at relatively little cost because they are generally cheap to insure: children make up a quarter of the U.S. population, but generate less than 12 percent of total health care spending.
The idea of creating a Medicare-style program for children has kicked around progressive politics since the advent of Medicare itself. After Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare coverage for older Americans into law in 1965, his administration intended to move on to creating a “Kiddicare” program to cover all children next. While LBJ didn’t get Kiddicare care off the ground before leaving office, other Democratic politicians have periodically picked up the idea. Senator Joe Lieberman, hardly anyone’s idea of a leftist, proposed a “MediKids” plan in 2004 where “newborn babies won’t go home with just a name and a birth certificate. All American children, rich or poor, will have health insurance that stays with them from the moment they’re born, all the way to age 25.”
In fact, variations on Medicare for Kids are baked into several of the health care plans gaining traction in Democratic politics right now. Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill would transition the country to full single-payer coverage by beginning with covering all children. And the Medicare for America plan proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and endorsed by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, would automatically enroll all American newborns in a revamped version of Medicare.
When making the case for universal health care, progressives should focus more attention on the cause of American children. There is a broad consensus that guaranteeing simple high-quality coverage for all children is a just and urgently-needed next step. Progressives would be well-served by creating a generation of Americans who grow up with guaranteed public health care coverage as a constant and dependable right in their lives.
Joel Dodge (@joeldodge07) is a lawyer and contributor to the People’s Policy Project think tank.
On behalf of Data for Progress, YouGov Blue fielded a national survey of US registered voters. The national issues survey was conducted by YouGov Blue from March 30-April 4, 2019 using YouGov’s online panel. The sample consists of 1,012 respondents interviewed on the internet who were registered to vote. The sample was weighted to be representative of the national population of voters by age, race, sex, education, and region using a 2018 US voter frame.
Respondents were asked, “Would you support or oppose extending universal health care to all American children by giving all Americans under the age of eighteen coverage in a government health plan modeled off of Medicare, known as "Medicare for Kids?"