After years of working with expecting and parenting adolescent families, I see the link between lack of health care and struggle toward self-sufficiency.

As we ponder the findings from the Tulsa World’s recent eight-day series on Adverse Childhood Experiences and mental health, we must consider increasing the age limit for SoonerCare coverage.

In 2006, I founded the nonprofit J.A.M.E.S. to help young parents complete their education. Here are some things I have learned:

1. An average ACE score for our clients is 5 out of 10;

2. Young parents between the ages of 19 and 24 are less likely than their nonparenting peers to qualify for mental health coverage; and

3. Without adequate Medicaid coverage, these young people will continue to be seen in emergency rooms, the Tulsa County jail and Oklahoma prisons.

The Affordable Care Act allows parents to carry their children on private insurance plans through age 26. Yet, this is not allowed for children on Medicaid.

According to Mental Health America, Oklahoma ranks 41st on a composite measure of youth mental health and access to care.

With this in mind, if private insurance permits continued coverage for children through age 26, shouldn’t our state and federally funded programs do the same?

And if we are discussing Adverse Childhood Experiences, don’t we have to consider the needs of young parents suffering while trying to parent the next generation?

Let’s consider SoonerCare eligibility for a 20-year-old University of Tulsa sophomore with no children and a 23-year-old mother of two.

The 20-year-old student was insured through SoonerCare until age 19 but was told at class enrollment she no longer had insurance. The student was enrolled in an expensive student plan through the school, but because of the cost (approximately $1,500 per semester) she explored other options.

Her call to the SoonerCare helpline resulted in little to no help, but her mother advocated for her and coverage was approved for less than $20 per month.

The 23-year-old mother’s SoonerCare coverage ceased six weeks after having a baby.

Our agency worked with her for months prior to delivery. With our guidance, she will return to college after a two-year interruption.

After providing enrollment documentation, she could qualify for services once she agrees to cooperate with the Department of Human Services to collect financial support from the child’s father.

Medicaid eligibility includes child support requirements, and we encourage all clients to comply with them. While the requirement may have relevance and merit, it is another mandate put on young people with children.

Young parents often sacrifice vital services because of their perception of child support enforcement in their own lives. Nonpayment of support isn’t illegal to them; it’s normal.

Also, young people may not press for support in a desperate attempt at trying to prevent the total disruption of an already strained relationship.

Those of us who have raised young people know the ability to reason or use sound judgment doesn’t always happen before age 24 or when you have a baby.

There is simply no little blue pill for maturity.

Childhood trauma increases the risk of disease, social and emotional problems, making access to health care even more crucial. State and federally funded health care coverage is limited at best, which is helping fill emergency rooms and jails.

Better solutions and policy are needed for teen and young parents to have health care coverage. It will help them be healthier and better parents by helping them focus on education and careers.

Providing insurance for this group of youth who are barely hanging on makes sense to me. Oklahoma’s youth deserve it.

Alisa Bell is the founder and executive director of J.A.M.E.S. Inc. (Just About Mothers Excelling in School), which is a Tulsa nonprofit serving expectant and parenting adolescents ages of 13 to 24. 

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