New Jersey now allows all income-eligible children – regardless of immigration status – to enroll in the state’s health insurance program.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced the expansion of the state’s Cover All Kids initiative as part of his budget plan last year, setting aside $11 million to provide health care to about 16,000 children. Since Jan. 1, anyone younger than 19 can apply for NJ FamilyCare, the state’s publicly funded health insurance program that includes Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program known as CHIP.
“This is huge,” said Surelis De Lima, a family support coordinator with Accompany Now, which works with unaccompanied minors as part of the Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corporation. “This is going to have such a positive impact on families and how they can navigate the system.”
State officials say they don’t yet know how many new children have signed up for NJ FamilyCare. But De Lima and other case managers who work with undocumented children say they’ve already begun signing kids up and conducting outreach to families who may have income-eligible children.
“This expansion will be critical to helping more New Jersey children receive the quality health care coverage that they deserve,” Christi Peace, a spokesperson for Murphy, said in a statement.
Children under 19 are considered income-eligible if their families make up to 355% of the federal poverty level – $8,210 per month in the case of a family of four.
De Lima said many families with undocumented children often pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for medical care, or rely on the emergency room instead of getting routine and preventative care. Even basic care like getting a physical or immunizations required for school can be costly and time-consuming.
“You go to Newark, you might have a low-cost clinic that costs $120, but the waitlist to get a physical there is probably three to six months. And that child needs that to be able to start school,” she said.
People who turn to free alternatives often have long waits – sometimes starting at 4 or 5 a.m., she said.
Nine other states provide some kind of health care coverage to all children regardless of immigration status; Connecticut is set to expand its coverage this month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Suma Setty, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said New Jersey’s expansion will improve public health in the state.
“Because they lack access, uninsured children might suffer higher rates of untreated asthma and diabetes and they might miss out on interventions at a critical stage in their life,” she said.
Murphy announced the Cover All Kids initiative in 2021, hoping to expand children’s access to health insurance by eliminating waiting periods, boosting outreach and eliminating certain premiums. Since then, more than 47,000 previously eligible but uninsured children have enrolled in health care coverage, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Department spokesperson Tom Hester said $3 million was earmarked to outreach the immigrant community as part of the latest expansion of NJ FamilyCare. Three community outreach specialists will be hired to provide outreach and application assistance.
Hester said the department will also issue grants to community groups to educate eligible families and a website with more information will be available soon.
Valerie Orellana, regional supervisor for Accompany Now, said expanding eligibility for children will be a game-changer for families and relieve the pressure on the patchwork system of case workers, low-cost clinics and emergency room visits that are overrun with demand.
“It'll make more people more willing to go to the doctors and go to the dentist and not have such severe cases in the ER,” she said. “I think they promote more independence, like, ‘Hey, these are the doctors. These are the dentists. Make the appointment,’ like you can do it.”
New York state’s Child Health Plus also provides free or low-cost health insurance to children under the age of 19 who do not qualify for Medicaid and do not have other health insurance coverage.