Unmet needs: Critics cite failures in health care for vulnerable foster children
Published in Health & Fitness
One night last month, a 9-year-old boy who had autism and talked about killing himself was among about 70 foster care children and youth under state supervision sleeping in hotels across Georgia.
Georgia’s designated health insurer for foster care, Amerigroup Community Care, had denied the boy placement in a psychiatric residential treatment facility, said Audrey Brannen, coordinator of complex care for Georgia’s child welfare agency. He stayed in a hotel for more than a month before receiving a temporary emergency placement in a foster home, she said.
The boy and the other children staying in the hotels lacked permanent placements, Brannen said, and many weren’t getting help for their complex mental and behavioral needs.
The frustration over gaps in care had gotten so bad that Candice Broce, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services, sent a scathing six-page letter to the state Medicaid agency in August — signaling an unusual interagency conflict. She argued that Amerigroup, a unit of Elevance Health, isn’t being held accountable for failures in care, and that its foster care contract should not be renewed.
“Simply put, the state’s most vulnerable children cannot access the physical, mental, or behavioral health treatment they need — and deserve,” Broce wrote.
Amerigroup declined to comment on Broce’s remarks specifically, saying it had not seen her letter. But Michael Perry, an Amerigroup Georgia spokesperson, said the insurer hosts collaborative monthly meetings with state agencies to hear any concerns and will “continue to work on behalf of these vulnerable individuals to ensure they have access to the appropriate healthcare and support services they need to be successful.”
Such problems extend beyond Georgia, according to Sandy Santana, executive director of the national advocacy group Children’s Rights. While foster care grabs headlines mainly in cases of abuse or neglect — even deaths — the failures of states and insurers in providing adequate health care for these children are widespread and occur largely without public scrutiny.
“These kids cycle in and out of ERs, and others are not accessing the services,” said Santana, whose group has filed lawsuits in more than 20 states over foster care problems. “This is an issue throughout the country.”
Nearly all children in foster care are eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal program for those with low incomes, but states decide on the delivery mechanism. Georgia is among at least 10 states that have turned to managed-care companies to deliver specialized services exclusively for foster kids and others under state supervision. At least three more — North Carolina, New Mexico, and Oklahoma — are taking similar steps. But regardless of the structure, getting timely access to care for many of these vulnerable kids is a problem, Santana said.
Obtaining mental health care for privately insured children can be a struggle too, of course, but for children in state custody, the challenge is even greater, said Dr. Lisa Zetley, a Milwaukee pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Foster Care, Adoption, and Kinship Care.
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