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Perspective | To boost early care and education in North Carolina, expand Medicaid

Child care professionals are among the workers in our state most likely to fall into the “coverage gap,” earning too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to get subsidized health insurance in the marketplace. That lack of benefits — in one of our state’s most important professions — makes it incredibly hard to recruit and retain the workforce we need to educate and care for our young children in North Carolina. 

I’ve worked in the field of early education for over 20 years — and for many of those years I found myself in the coverage gap, living without health coverage. Many of my colleagues still are. Early educators are building the foundations of all learning for young children — literally building brains — and at the same time, they so often have no way to cope with their own ailments. Data from the 2015 Child Care Workforce Study show that 1 in 5 child care providers in North Carolina had no health insurance.  

Living without coverage

Not having health insurance means when you’re not well, you just have to suffer through it.  You suck it up, find a way to get through it, and cross your fingers and hope that it’s not something that can’t be fixed. As a parent of two young daughters, as well as an early educator, I felt the strain of that both physically and mentally when I was in the coverage gap. Not having health insurance puts a heavy weight of worry on you. What if something happens to me, or I get ill, who else is here to take care of my children?  

“Leave it at the door”

Everybody who’s working in the K-12 education system has access to health care. Our early care and education providers deserve the same. They’re building brains. They’re laying the foundations for all future learning. They should have access to health care. If they’re not physically well, how can they give themselves fully, as our young children need and deserve? We literally say things to our teachers like, “Leave it at the door before you cross the threshold into that classroom.” That doesn’t seem fair when teachers can’t get the care they need for what ails them.  

Parents are our children’s first and most important caregivers and educators. But next comes that early care and education provider, with whom our youngest children spend so many of their waking hours. We expect early educators to grow whole healthy human beings in partnership with parents. We need to make sure that they are well enough to do that.  

Closing the Medicaid coverage gap is urgent

It’s time for our state legislators to expand Medicaid. We need to close the coverage gap for this generation of parents and caregivers. And we need to do it for the generation they’re raising. One of the many, many reasons to expand Medicaid in North Carolina is because of how foundational early care and education is to our state’s future.  

If we care about the people of the state of North Carolina, there’s no way we can turn our back on this opportunity.  

Devonya Govan-Hunt

Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt is the president of the Charlotte affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute.