A generation after the United States expanded safety-net health coverage to pregnant women who would otherwise be uninsured, their grandchildren are still reaping the benefits, a new study suggests.
A new economic paper that examines the long-term benefits of Medicaid coverage for pregnant women suggests that when babies born with coverage grew up and started families of their own, those kids had higher average birth weights. The number of children born with extremely low birth weights, a serious condition, also fell.
Scientists know that conditions during gestation and birth can have long-lasting consequences. Generations born during famines, for example, had poorer health throughout their lives. One study found that children exposed in utero to radiation from nuclear testing in Norway in the 1950s and ‘60s grew up to have lower IQs, less education and lower earnings. Some effects seemed to be passed on to their children, too.
Recent research suggests that people who have health insurance from infancy experience benefits later in life. “When they grew up, they actually had fewer hospitalizations, were less likely to have diabetes [and] other chronic illnesses,” said Sarah Miller, an economist at the University of Michigan who co-authored the recent paper on prenatal Medicaid coverage. The study, released as a working paper, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Today, Medicaid pays for about half of all births in the United States, largely because in the 1980s, many states, concerned about how many American babies were dying, expanded coverage to pregnant women and children. In the study, economists used those differences in timing and eligibility requirements to examine how the changes might have affected people born under different criteria—and their children.
Since every birth certificate lists the mother’s date and place of birth, Miller and her colleagues were able to match the health of children born recently—from 1994 to 2015—with information on whether each child’s mother was likely to have been eligible for Medicaid when she was born. Then they examined how the mothers’ Medicaid eligibility at birth was linked to the next generation’s birth weight and prematurity.
The researchers had no way to tell whether any given mother had been covered by Medicaid at birth. Instead, they looked at changes in how many people would have been eligible for Medicaid and how that was associated with birth outcomes for their children.
While expanded Medicaid coverage didn’t seem to reduce the number of premature births in the next generation, it did improve average birth weight and reduce the number of kids born at very low birth weights.