Buying Health Insurance for Children Under 18: A Guide

Updated on March 4th, 2024

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Finding affordable health insurance for children can be a challenge. Between understanding special rules around kids – and the cost of adding them to your plan as dependents – ensuring you have kids’ health insurance is harder than you might think.

Insurance plan eligibility can vary among different members of the same family, which only complicates the issue. In some cases, kids may qualify for subsidized coverage while their parents don’t.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to secure healthcare coverage for children in the US, from employer-sponsored plans to public Medicaid programs. And because everyone’s family and financial situation is different, we outline the full range of options for kids’ health insurance.

How Does the ACA Law Affect Children?

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most insurance plans must offer the following benefits to children:

  1. Young adults 18 years or younger must be offered pediatric dental and vision care (however, they don’t have to purchase it).
  2. Low-income young adults qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in most states, even if their parents don’t qualify.
  3. Young adults can remain on a parent or guardian’s policy until the age of 26 years.
  4. Large employers (defined as workplaces with 50 or more full-time employees) must offer coverage to employees’ dependents under the age of 26 (TRICARE is the only exception to this, which has unique rules).
  5. All ACA Marketplace plans must cover most in-network preventive services for children at no cost, even if the yearly deductible hasn’t been met. 

Important ACA Rules & Guidelines

Here are the basic pieces of information you need to know regarding the ACA and coverage for your child:

  • You and Your Child Can’t Be Turned Away for Pre-Existing Conditions: If you buy health insurance for yourself or a child during the Open Enrollment Period, your application for health coverage cannot be declined because you or your child have a pre-existing medical condition.
  • You Must Get Coverage for Your Child During Open Enrollment: Outside of the annual Open Enrollment Period, it may not be possible to buy comprehensive health insurance for your child unless you have experienced a qualifying life event (QLE).
  • Birthing or Adopting a Child Counts as a Qualifying Life Event (QLE): Examples of qualifying life events include the birth or adoption of a child, marriage or divorce, the loss of employer-based coverage, or moving to a new coverage area. Qualifying life events trigger a sixty-day special enrollment timeframe for you and/or your child.
  • You Have 60 Days to Find Insurance After the Birth of Your Child: If you have a baby while you’re uninsured, you have 60 days to purchase an insurance policy for yourself and your child. If you buy coverage after your baby is born, your plan will typically start within 30 days.
  • Simply Getting Pregnant Doesn’t Count as a QLE: Although having a baby is considered a qualifying life event, getting pregnant is not. If you’re uninsured and become pregnant, that does not let you enroll in a new healthcare plan. You must apply for coverage during the nationwide Open Enrollment Period or within the sixty-day window following a qualifying life event such as birth. However, you could qualify for CHIP, even if you’re pregnant before your coverage starts. You can apply for CHIP any time of the year. 
  • Children Cannot Be Covered by Grandparents’ Health Insurance Policy: Grandchildren are not eligible for coverage on a grandparent’s policy (exceptions to this rule occur when grandparents have legal custody of their grandchildren).

1. Adding Your Child to Your Health Insurance as a Dependent

How Your Divorce Affects Your Child’s Health Coverage

Some health insurance plans charge additional premiums to continue health insurance for children or an ex-spouse if one member of a newly-divorced couple has healthcare coverage through an employer and the other does not. Fortunately, group health insurance plans may allow divorced adults to continue insurance coverage for their family members. (Note: this can later change if one spouse later remarries and wants to include their new family on the policy).

State and federal laws offer protection to families in danger of losing healthcare coverage and neither an insurer nor an employer can deny court-ordered insurance coverage when children are involved.

2.  Health Insurance for Children Only

“Child-only” healthcare plans are individual plans that are offered to children under the age of 19. Health insurance plans for children only, with no adults included in the policy, are not uncommon and are found on many health insurance websites. This health insurance category does not include healthcare policies that are sold to adults with children as dependents. Rather, child-only policies are often sold to parents whose employers don’t provide dependent coverage, or to grandparents on Medicare who are the primary caregivers for children not otherwise eligible for public programs like CHIP or Medicaid.

Child-Only Plans: What’s Covered?

Child-only healthcare plans are ACA-compliant (with the exception of short-term medical policies that cover children) and as such, child-only health insurance plans are required to cover essential health benefits and are guaranteed-issue, meaning that your child cannot be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions. In addition, child-only plans are required to cover:

  • Preventive care, at no cost;
  • Behavioral and oral health risk assessments;
  • Certain medications (fluoride chemoprevention supplements, gonorrhea preventive medication for newborns, and iron supplements);
  • STI testing;
  • Screenings;
  • Immunizations;
  • And more.

Who Sells Health Insurance for Children Only?

Most health insurance carriers – both Marketplace and non-Marketplace – offer health insurance for children only. Under the Affordable Care Act, any insurer offering an individual healthcare plan to an adult must also make that plan available to an individual child, provided the child has not reached his or her 21st birthday at the beginning of the plan year.

Subsidies for Child-Only Plans

Parents and guardians whose incomes fall below a certain level and who lack access to employer-sponsored healthcare coverage may apply for subsidies to offset the cost of their kids’ health insurance. In nearly all cases, a parent or guardian can apply for subsidies as long as that parent meets financial eligibility standards and is securing coverage for a legal dependent. Adults with employer-sponsored coverage cannot apply for subsidies to offset the cost of a child-only health insurance plan, even if the parent’s income (theoretically) is low enough for them to qualify.

Health Insurance for Children Only: Cost

Whether it makes financial sense for parents to purchase child-only coverage, as opposed to covering the child as a dependent, will depend upon parents’ individual financial circumstances, eligibility for tax subsidies, and the cost of health insurance options available to them. However, it’s important to note that a parent who is covered by an employer-sponsored plan usually cannot apply for subsidies to offset the premium and out-of-pocket costs of a child-only health insurance plan.

3. Government Health Insurance for Children

In the U.S., government health insurance for children comes in the form of two programs. These two programs work together to provide health insurance for children in low- and middle-income families: Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Medicaid for Children

Medicaid is run by individual states and is financed with both state and federal funding. Medicaid offers affordable coverage to people with limited incomes, including children, adults, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and seniors.

In most cases, kids can qualify for Medicaid coverage if they’re U.S. citizens or lawfully admitted immigrants – even if their parents are not. Children who have “aged out” of foster care can also be covered by Medicaid until they are 26 years old; these youth qualify for Medicaid coverage regardless of their income.

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides health insurance for children whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. CHIP often helps families whose incomes are too substantial to qualify for Medicaid, but who nonetheless struggle to afford health insurance for their children.

Note that each state has its own name and terminology for its CHIP and Medicaid programs and coverage options. Ohio’s Medicaid program for uninsured children (up to age 19), for example, is called Healthy Start. In Wisconsin, the Medicaid program for low-income residents is known as BadgerCare Plus. If you’re not sure what CHIP and Medicaid programs are called in your state, you can use this list to find out.

CHIP and Medicaid Eligibility Requirements: Income / Family Size

CHIP and Medicaid eligibility is determined by family size and income, and eligibility guidelines vary from state to state. In most states, uninsured children under the age of 19, in a family of four earning up to about $30,000 annually, are likely to be eligible for kids health insurance.

Medicaid Expansion Under the Affordable Care Act

While the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was created to serve children, a few states extend CHIP coverage to parents and adults without children. Federal laws passed in 2000 and 2001 have allowed states with leftover CHIP funds to use those funds to provide healthcare coverage to low-income, uninsured adults who do not qualify for Medicaid. Currently, there are nine states which provide CHIP-funded coverage to parents (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Wisconsin) and three states which allocate funds to cover adults without dependent children (Idaho, Michigan, and New Mexico).

In addition, several states, including Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, use CHIP funds to cover parents in order to enable all family members to enroll in a single plan.

CHIP and Medicaid Eligibility Requirements: Citizenship Status

Federal law restricts many legally residing immigrants from qualifying for Medicaid or CHIP coverage, or requires immigrants to wait five years before granting them access to coverage.

However, some states do provide Medicaid or CHIP coverage to legally residing pregnant women and/or children:

  • AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, HI, ME, MD, MA, MN, NE, NJ, NM, NY, NC, NV, OH, PA, SC, VT, WA, and WI provide coverage to both legally residing pregnant women and children.
  • WY provides Medicaid/CHIP coverage to lawfully present immigrant pregnant women only.
  • FL, MT, IA, IL, LA, OR, RI, TX, UT, and VA provide Medicaid/CHIP coverage to present immigrant youth lawfully.

At present, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is not an eligible immigration status for applying for health insurance, as federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from either enrolling in Medicaid or CHIP programs, or shopping in the government marketplaces.

CHIP and Medicaid Eligibility Requirements: Pregnant Women

  • Pregnant women earning below particular income levels are eligible for Medicaid and/or CHIP coverage. In addition, federal regulations require states to extend coverage to women for at least 60 days postpartum.
  • Unborn Child Option (CHIP-Funded): The ‘unborn child option’ permits states to consider a fetus as a qualifying child for purposes of CHIP coverage, regardless of the mother’s immigration or citizenship status.

Find Out If You Qualify for CHIP or Medicaid offers a tool to help you determine whether you qualify for CHIP and Medicaid programs in your state. Use our subsidy chart to see if you meet income guidelines based on your family size.

What Healthcare Services Are Covered by CHIP?

Regardless of where you live, all CHIP programs are required to provide children with the following healthcare benefits:

  • Doctor visits and routine checkups;
  • Free immunizations;
  • Prescription drug coverage;
  • Hospital care (both inpatient and outpatient);
  • Lab work and X-rays; and
  • Emergency/urgent care.

How Much Does CHIP Coverage Cost?

CHIP costs vary by state and also depend on your annual household income. This tool can provide you with an accurate estimate. Many families can get free health coverage for their children – it all depends on your household income. Some families may be required to pay a modest enrollment fee or premiums, and copayments for specific services.

Once a child is signed up for CHIP, preventive care – such as well-child checkups and immunizations – are free of coinsurance charges. If your child gets sick or injured, you may need to pay a small amount in coinsurance in exchange for healthcare services.

How Do You Enroll in CHIP?

Unlike other Marketplace healthcare plans, CHIP does not have an Open Enrollment Period. Eligible individuals may apply for CHIP during any time of year to secure coverage for their children.

There are two ways for parents, grandparents, or legal guardians to apply for CHIP coverage:

  1. Enroll in CHIP over the phone by calling +1(800) 318-2596 [TTY: (855) 889-4325] or
  2. Fill out an application for CHIP online through a government health insurance website.

Health Insurance for Youth in Foster Care

Former foster youth are eligible for Medicaid until they reach age 26, provided that they turned 18 (or older under their state’s child welfare plan) and were enrolled in Medicaid while they were in foster care.

4. Short-Term Health Plans: Temporary Health Insurance for Children

Short-term medical (STM) plans are temporary medical policies, and they provide consumers with an affordable way to pay for healthcare for a brief period of time, such as when they experience a gap in coverage, or anticipate being uninsured for a short duration.

When Does It Make Sense to Buy Short-Term Health Insurance for Children?

There are a number of situations when it would make sense for a parent or guardian to buy short-term health insurance for children. Parents can use short-term health insurance to ensure their child has medical coverage if they’re in-between jobs, or in a benefits waiting period at a new workplace. Short-term health insurance can also serve as a temporary coverage solution for your child while he or she is waiting to be accepted into CHIP, or another medical plan.

One reason short-term health insurance plans are advantageous: coverage can take effect right away. For this reason, STM plans can be a great last resort or last-minute solution, as applications for STM plans can be filled out and processed online. When you apply for short-term coverage for your child, you’ll be asked to answer a series of questions about your child’s medical history, and your child’s coverage starts as soon as your application is processed and accepted. Parents can use our plan comparison tool to determine which short-term policies are available in their area.

Not Everyone Qualifies for Short-Term Coverage

To be sure, short-term plans can be economically cheap – but not everyone qualifies for them. Insurers aren’t required to cover pre-existing conditions with these plans, so qualifying for this type of coverage will be difficult if your child is ill, or suffers from chronic health conditions. Moreover, short-term health insurance is  not meant to cover the cost of your child’s healthcare for long periods of time and these plans are not an appropriate substitute for more comprehensive insurance coverage.

These Plans Aren’t ACA-Compliant

Because short-term medical plans do not meet the minimum standards for insurance coverage laid out by the ACA, short-term plans are unlikely to cover all the care your child requires. While major healthcare policies that are ACA-compliant are required to cover ten categories of essential health benefits, including maternity care, prescription drug coverage, immunizations, and mental health services, short-term plans are not required to cover these categories of care for your child.

5. Kids’ Dental Coverage

Pediatric dental coverage is considered “essential,” but not “mandatory,” under the ACA.

Except for in Kentucky, Nevada, and Washington (the three states which require parents to purchase stand-alone dental coverage for their kids), major medical ACA plans have to offer pediatric dental coverage – but parents are not required to purchase it.

If you’re looking at plans online, there are two different ways to get dental coverage: 1.) as part of a health plan or 2.) by itself, through a separate, stand-alone dental plan. That said, it’s important to note that consumers cannot buy a stand-alone dental plan by itself; to purchase a stand-alone dental plan, you must buy a healthcare plan at the same time.

Here’s what you need to know about the Affordable Care Act and children’s dental coverage:

  1. Pediatric Care Is an Essential Health Benefit: Pediatric dental care is counted among the ACA’s 10 essential health benefits, and must be included in all major medical health insurance plans listed on federal websites and sold on private websites;
  2. Dental Must Be Available to Those 18 and Under: Because it is an essential health benefit, dental coverage must be available to children 18 and younger as part of a major health insurance plan, or as a stand-alone plan; and
  3. Parents Aren’t Necessarily Required to Buy Dental Coverage for Their Kids: Parents (except for those living in Kentucky, Nevada, and Washington) are not required to buy dental insurance for their child. It is optional and there is no penalty for going without it; however, as mentioned above, many health insurance plans include dental coverage.

Taking the Next Steps

Review local health insurance plans to determine the most appropriate plan for your child.

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