Editorial Board, Albuquerque Journal
April 2, 2017
It’s probably no surprise that the percentage of babies born into Medicaid families is higher in states with lower than average incomes. After all, Medicaid was designed in part to provide poor families with health care they could not otherwise afford.
What is surprising – shocking in fact – is that while Medicaid pays for 47 percent of all births nationwide on average, it pays for 72 percent of the births in New Mexico, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on major health care issues domestically and globally.
And other indicators give little hope of ensuring a New Mexico Medicaid baby doesn’t become a Medicaid child, Medicaid teen and Medicaid adult who in turn continues the cycle by having his or her own Medicaid baby.
That’s not good for a state, county or city, each of which needs a strong workforce and tax dollars; or for taxpayers, who support Medicaid and other safety-net programs; or for the recipients, who deserve a path out of poverty.
Having that much of the state’s population depend on tax dollars to cover the cost of births and infant health care is simply unsustainable.
Of course Medicaid expansion, which the Journal supported, has contributed to that 72 percent statistic. But while other states expanded their rolls, we still managed to come out on top.
Some who have a vested interest in the disheartening birth statistic – they tout the Medicaid 3-to-1 match as an economic driver – have put a positive spin on it. James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, and Brent Earnest, secretary of the state Human Services Department, say it shows the state’s commitment to prenatal care and babies being born healthy. Absolutely – a healthier populace is a key reason the Journal supported Gov. Susana Martinez signing off on the expansion.
However, the staggering number reminds us New Mexico is among the nation’s poorest states, with about 900,000 of our nearly 2 million residents on Medicaid – the jointly funded federal-state health insurance program for low-income, disabled and other qualifying individuals.
And there are other factors involved in New Mexico having so many Medicaid babies.
One is New Mexico’s eligibility rules – a three-member household qualifies for pregnancy-related Medicaid services if the annual household income is $50,400 or less, according to the state Department of Human Services. New Mexico’s annual median income is $43,872. So not only New Mexico’s poor qualify for this service, which covers all expenses.
Still, the reality is that New Mexico’s poverty is the main reason we have so many Medicaid babies.
Jimenez’s child advocacy organization’s own Kids Count Data Book notes that New Mexico: is worst in the nation in the percentage of children living in poverty; has among the highest percentage of kids living in families where parents lack full-time, year-round employment as well as children living in single-parent families and in families where the head of household does not have a high school diploma.
The data also shows New Mexico is in the top 10 for the percentage of teens not in school and not working; and is dead last for having fourth-graders who can read at grade level. And a new report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says New Mexico girls ages 15 to 19 have a birth a rate of 51 per 100,000 – significantly higher than the U.S. rate of 38 per 100,000 girls in that age group.
Data also shows that – hand in hand with poverty – New Mexico’s drug and crime rates are also sky high. The Journal has published too many photos of women in jail jumpsuits who are pregnant. And too many stories about young women who watch the father of their unborn children go off to jail.
The most disheartening thing is there is nothing new in these dismal statistics – we are a poor state, where young and uneducated residents have babies, relegating them to a tough uphill climb out of poverty. The cycle continues.
It’s clear New Mexico needs to continue to pound the education reform and economic development drum if things are going to change.
It’s how we get there that’s caused the inertia.
Compromise is a dirty word in today’s partisan climate, but that can’t keep the state’s leaders from continuing to try to change the trajectory of our poorest families.
Children should be able to read by the end of third grade, more residents should gain technical training or earn college degrees, more individuals should take responsibility for when they start a family and the state needs to invest in its residents with major tax reform, closing tax loopholes and broadening and reducing the state’s gross receipts tax.
New Mexico has known for too long it must do better by its residents. Having 72 percent of its babies born on Medicaid is not only unsustainable, it’s unacceptable.