Big Daddy

Children’s health care: unfinished business

California’s recent budget battle did more than just heighten political friction. The two-month-long stalemate monopolized precious time needed to fix California’s desperately broken health-care system, which leaves millions of Californians uninsured–including over 760,000 children. Uninsured children often miss the preventive care that decreases health-care costs borne by the public over time.

Now, with just a few weeks left on the legislative calendar, Democrats and Republicans alike have a responsibility to address their unfinished business–namely health-care reform. This is not a problem that can wait until the next legislative year. California, which always has prided itself on leading the nation in social and economic issues, today ranks 43rd among states in the percent of insured children. As families, businesses and the rest of the public are demanding immediate action, it is not hyperbole to say that health care reform is a life or death issue.

The essential component of any legislative health-care reform must be serving its most vulnerable constituents: our children. Creating a health-care system that works for children means ensuring immediate funding for insurance coverage for all children and making health care accessible. We have the opportunity to do both.

The benefits for all Californians of providing affordable health insurance to every child are widely documented. When children are insured, the preventive care they have access to reduces public health costs. Furthermore, children who receive regular health care are more likely to grow into healthy, productive adults.

Given the longstanding problems with our state’s health-care system, considering new solutions is critical. Where children are concerned, traditional health-care systems lack the flexibility to cater to their unique needs. But, fortunately, as legislators are forced to work quickly to correct health-care woes, there are examples of proven and innovative child health care systems to emulate.

Today, school health centers are serving over 600 schools around the state. These pioneering programs have proven to be more efficient and effective quite simply because they take health care and put it where children are: in schools.
Currently located predominantly in disadvantaged communities where children have more barriers to accessing health care, school health centers are successfully treating common ailments, offering check-ups and immunizations, providing counseling on nutrition and health issues, and managing students’ chronic illnesses, such as asthma and diabetes. Some centers also offer mental-health counseling, dental care or educational programs for parents. These basic services prevent the spread of infectious diseases, reduce public health-care costs and get children back in class.

This common-sense approach to bringing health care to where the children are provides not only greatly improved access to care, but also many other benefits for children and their families. For example, teachers’ job satisfaction and performance improve when there are

professionals on campus to assist them with their students’ issues. Also, consider the benefits to working parents and their employers: When a school calls to report that their child is ill, the parent can stay at work because there is a professional at the school to assess the situation.

Moreover, there are some unexpected benefits of school health centers. Take the case of a young boy whose brain tumor was diagnosed after initial testing at a school health center. The referral to the center came from the boy’s bus driver, who was concerned when he noticed a change in the way the boy got on and off of the bus.

As legislators debate how to reform health care, they must create a system that works for children. Such a system must include the necessary funding so that every child has health insurance coverage and places healthcare services where children are – in schools. Politically and economically there has never been a better time to make this happen. The legislature must make up for lost time by making health care reform for California’s children its top priority.

Former California State Assembly member Ted Lempert is President of Children Now, a national nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Oakland. Children Now focuses on ensuring quality health care, a solid education and a positive media environment for all children and works to raise children’s well-being to the top of the national policy agenda.

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