Children's hospitals want Congress to fund mental health, workforce and coverage protections before year-end

The Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) penned a letter to congressional leaders asking the federal government to prioritize widespread pediatric behavioral health care needs, workforce shortages and continued insurance coverage for children as it sets budgets and policies during the next few months.

“At a time when our children’s hospitals are flooded with children dealing with respiratory illnesses, mental health crises and other healthcare needs, congressional action is urgently needed before the end of the year to ensure children’s hospitals have the resources and capacity they need to best take care of our nation’s children,” Mark Wietecha, CEO of CHA, which represents 220 children’s hospitals across the country, wrote congressional majority and minority leaders.

Wietecha’s letter often pointed to the early-season influx of respiratory syncytial virus and other diseases currently overwhelming children’s hospitals as cause for concern. However, he was firmer on adolescent mental health as the chief concern among his organization’s members.

CHA and other professional groups declared the issue a “national emergency” in October of last year and have yet to feel that the issue has been fully addressed. Recent years have seen visits for youth suicide attempts increase “dramatically,” visits for eating disorders double and suicide rates among Black boys and girls under the age of 12 in particular jump upward, Wietecha said.

“Addressing the children’s mental health crisis is our top priority,” he wrote. “We have worked closely with key committees and a number of congressional offices on bipartisan, bicameral solutions to address this ongoing crisis through investments in Medicaid, boosting the pediatric behavioral health workforce and bolstering community-based and inpatient services and support.”

Specifically, CHA recommended that Congress:

  • Enhance Medicaid reimbursement for pediatric mental health
  • Pass the Accelerating Kids’ Access to Care Act
  • Establish workforce grants specific to children’s mental health workers
  • Continue to enact community-based mental health funding targeting children’s needs
  • Support efforts to scale up inpatient and step-down mental health services

Wietecha’s letter went on to outline the CHA’s concerns surrounding the general pediatric healthcare workforce and coverage for children.

With the former, CHA requested that $718.8 million be appropriated for fiscal year 2023 for the Children’s Hospitals Graduate Medical Education program. Citing the heavy strain on emergency departments, the group also requested a one-time boost of $200 million for the coming year.

“We simply do not have enough pediatric specialists to staff the beds in our children’s hospitals,” Wietecha wrote.

Finally, CHA told congressional leaders that coverage gaps could “have a real and deleterious effect” on children with the upcoming Medicaid eligibility redetermination.

The group recommended lawmakers enact a 12-month continuous eligibility for children in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and that Congress permanently authorize CHIP to “ensure stable coverage for the 9 million children and pregnant women from lower-income families who rely on the program.”

“We appreciate the down payment on mental health you have already undertaken this Congress; however, more support for the mental health needs of our children is urgently needed,” Wietecha wrote. “We stand ready to partner with you to take additional steps necessary to promote children’s health and to enact comprehensive, bold policy changes to address the national children’s mental health emergency and all children’s health issues.”

CHA’s request letter for Congress follows missives from other hospital industry groups laying out their priorities for the year’s final legislative session.

These lame duck requests largely called for additional financial relief, extensions of rural hospital programs and the passage of reforms to prior authorization.