State Lawmaker Proposes Easier Enrollment for Medicaid Families in WIC Program

State Rep. Jaime Foster, D-Ellington (CT Examiner).


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HARTFORD — A state lawmaker wants to make enrollment in the Women, Infants and Children program easier for Medicaid-eligible families in Connecticut.

State Rep. Jaime Foster, D-Ellington, a former Public Health Committee member, said only 46 percent of Connecticut residents eligible for the federal supplemental nutrition program are receiving its benefits, arguing that children’s health is at risk. 

“I have two young kids and I’m a registered dietician. I know exactly how important healthy food at a young age is,” said Foster, who has a doctorate in nutritional science. “I feel like it is fundamentally problematic that we know that we can improve not just children’s health and wellness as young people, but also their lifespan and longevity, and that [often] we don’t. WIC is actually a nutrition intervention; it’s providing people with healthy foods.”

In contrast to programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, WIC participants must meet specific criteria beyond just income. Since its inception as a federally funded program in the 1970s, WIC requires recipients to undergo nutritional counseling, allowing them to obtain particular food items tailored to their and their children’s needs.

Foster said she’d like the DPH to collaborate with entities like the state Department of Education to inform eligible families about the program. 

“In getting the best healthy foods for their children, from the very beginning, including women who are pregnant, it improves health outcomes,” Foster told CT Examiner last week. “We talk all the time about infant and maternal mortality and disparate outcomes based on race and ethnicity and income. But healthy nutrition is a fundamental crux of growing a healthy baby and being a healthy mom.”

As of November, only 46%, or 48,934 out of 106,000 eligible Connecticut families, were receiving WIC benefits, falling below the national average of about 51%. In neighboring states, 54.4% of eligible residents in Rhode Island and 61.2% in Massachusetts were participating in WIC, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2021.

WIC provides electronic benefit cards for individuals to buy healthy foods, alongside health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 at nutritional risk.

A two-person family qualifies for WIC with a maximum income of $36,482; a three-person family at $45,991; and a four-person family at $55,500. Participants can receive food items including  milk, infant formula, juice, breakfast cereals, fruits, vegetables, cheese, eggs, whole wheat or whole grain bread, canned fish, dry or canned legumes, and peanut butter, among others. Recipients also receive farmers market vouchers to use for area fruits and vegetables.

Proponents of Foster’s proposal say Connecticut’s WIC enrollment rate has dipped below 50% because families aren’t aware of the program and that the paperwork is burdensome and confusing.

State Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-Milford, recognized that achieving the goal of enrolling 100 percent of eligible individuals is ambitious and well-intentioned, but acknowledged that there’s still work to be done.

“The key is making sure people are aware [of the program],” said Kennedy, a Public Health Committee member. “Maybe we can have a session and have people available and walk people through it virtually.”

Kennedy expects her Republican committee colleagues to support the measure, especially since there are no state dollars involved. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday.

“It feels like sometimes we are always trying to create new ways to reinvent the wheel, but the money is already in place for this,” she said. “There are no extra costs for us; it’s all federal monies in place. It’s also not a mandate, and it will not do anything to a municipality where it impacts their budgets.”

Kennedy said some families might feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek the aid they are entitled to, but urged those not enrolled to go through the process.

“We want people to realize that it’s OK because this could be a tough wrinkle they are going through right now,” she said. “And maybe, someday, they will not be in this position. We want people to be secure in knowing that they can get what they need right now and, hopefully, they are not on it forever. No one needs to feel vulnerable. I would never want someone to feel that way.”

Mike Puglisi, an associate extensions professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Connecticut, said WIC offers more than just food benefits. 

“WIC offers breastfeeding peer counselors, who provide services for breastfeeding mothers,” said Puglisi, who worked for WIC in both Brooklyn, New York, and North Carolina. “That’s really a big benefit in regards to not only the child’s feeding, but you also get that natural immunization from antibodies from breast milk. … They also get free nutrition education and get a nutrition assessment.”

Marlene Schwartz, director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Public Health in Hartford, spends time researching and analyzing the benefits of programs like WIC and SNAP.

“WIC is so important because it provides very nutritious foods for pregnant women and children up to age 5. It’s also been shown to really benefit people who otherwise would have had a hard time affording healthy food,” Schwartz told CT Examiner. “There has been a lot of research showing that improved nutrition and improved health for mothers and young children are the benefits [that come from taking part in programs like WIC].” 

This story has been updated to correct participation numbers in the program

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950