As state and federal leaders continue to push for expanded early learning opportunities, a new report details how state Medicaid agencies can partner with Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) agencies to improve the health of pregnant and postpartum people, infants and young children — setting them up for success as they enter pre- and transitional kindergarten.
Researchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Georgetown Center for Children and Families noted that unmet needs, such as food insecurity, can undermine health and prevent parents and young children from thriving. However, a robust body of research over several decades cited in the report shows WIC-participation has the potential to improve health outcomes in many ways.
“People who participate in WIC give birth to healthier babies, with improved birth weights, who, regardless of health coverage status, are more likely to survive infancy,” according to the report. “Studies have found that the reductions in infant mortality were especially striking for Black participants. WIC participation is also associated with higher likelihood of immunization and use of preventive medical care (including for children participating in Medicaid, according to one study), as well as better cognitive and educational outcomes at school age.”
Despite such improved outcomes, not enough has been done to increase WIC participation, according to researchers.
“People who are enrolled in Medicaid are automatically income-eligible for WIC, and both programs reach a very large portion of the roughly 2 million infants who are eligible for both. But while Medicaid reaches most eligible children and parents, WIC reaches less than half of eligible pregnant people and young children,” they determined. “Moreover, only 37 percent of all WIC-eligible Medicaid enrollees participate in WIC and a meager 14 percent of WIC-eligible pregnant Medicaid enrollees participate. State Medicaid and WIC agencies can work together to increase WIC participation and improve the health of young children and parents nationwide.”
States have a great deal of flexibility in the extent to which they coordinate between Medicaid and WIC, according to researchers. “By working together, state Medicaid agencies and WIC programs can improve the health of pregnant and postpartum people and very young children, potentially reducing racial disparities, and setting them on a path to better lifelong health,” they continued.
Steps to accomplish this may include automatically referring every Medicaid applicant who is pregnant, postpartum or is a child under 5 years old to WIC; using a state data matching process so that Medicaid enrollees who aren’t yet enrolled in WIC would be referred to WIC and receive direct WIC outreach; and ensuring that as Medicaid enrollees obtain health care, managed care organizations, health care providers and community-based health workers make robust referrals to WIC.
More detail can be found in the report, which can be downloaded here.