Jewish Journal

How Can We Stand By ?

Make child health care a priority

by Carl E. Coan

Posted on Oct. 12, 2000 at 8:00 pm

With the Days of Awe just behind us, it might do us all good to consider the content of the prayers we collectively uttered. Many were personal prayers for one's self and loved ones, but many also included prayers for the faceless poor and needy as expressions of our concern for the larger community. These prayers highlight the essence of what it means to be a Jew and reinforce how essential it is to reach outside one's own neighborhood to assist the larger community of man.

In America, children are suffering without health care coverage. As Jews and human beings, how can we silently stand by? With both state and federal budgets reflecting healthy bottom lines, now is the time to fully fund both education and health coverage for all children. If we don't do this now, we simply lack the will and not the means.

These issues are intertwined. The lack of funding for medical coverage contributes to school absenteeism. At the 80-year-old Pediatric & Family Medical Center (PFMC) in downtown Los Angeles, we see this every day.

We recently treated a child at PFMC who had no family medical coverage and suffered permanent hearing loss due to recurrent, untreated ear infections, severely limiting his ability to learn in the classroom. Children with chronic asthma are treated with home remedies and regularly miss school. Without prescription drug coverage, inhalers are not affordable.

We see developmentally delayed children who do not receive crucial developmental screenings at an early age because they do not see a doctor on a regular basis.

Hundreds of other clinics across the state see the same shameful thing. And with California's uninsured population growing by nearly 70,000 a month, the problem is not going away any time soon. In this country, we accept the fact that education is a right - not a privilege - for our children. Education, it is argued, establishes a strong foundation for future individual endeavors as well as for society as a whole. Yet health care, amazingly enough, still remains a privilege.

While funding public education is vital, the right to health care cannot be overlooked. Without good health, children cannot benefit from their education. This is an important policy, and it is time to bring this debate into the public forum.

There is absolutely no question that this funding is vital to build a strong future for our children and the country. Unfortunately, our country does not give the health of our children the same priority.

California has been as lax as the federal government in its dedication to the health of our children. During his election campaign, Gov. Gray Davis crusaded for education reform, but his dedication to children's health care coverage lags far behind. While the governor recently signed legislation making small dents in the needs of our uninsured, a great deal more must be done.

The state's budget surplus led Davis to cut visitor's fees to California's sprawling park system. If he can make it cheaper for children to visit Malibu Creek, there must be a way to make children's health care coverage affordable and available.

It's time Davis and the California legislature fully recognize the findings of a recent Field Poll indicating that health care is the voters' no. 2 concern, and it actually ranks as the top issue among Latinos.

Research from the American Association of Retired People indicates that the number of uninsured children under age 18 increased to 10.7 million in 1997 - or 15.1 percent of all children. How does this lack of coverage impact our young? According to a 1997 National Center for Health Statistics survey, children without health insurance were six times more likely to go without needed medical care, five times more likely to use the emergency room as a regular source of care and four times as likely to have necessary care delayed.

The Children's Defense Fund indicates that uninsured children are at greater risk for preventable illness. The majority of uninsured children with asthma and one in three uninsured children with recurring ear infections never see a doctor during the year. Many are hospitalized for acute asthma attacks that could have been prevented or suffer permanent hearing loss from untreated ear infections. A report from the state of Florida indicates that uninsured children are 25 percent more likely to miss school.

Researchers have shown that investing in children's health coverage actually saves taxpayer dollars. One in four uninsured children either uses the hospital emergency room as a regular source of health care - a costly endeavor - or has no regular source of care.

Florida found that when parents were helped to buy coverage for uninsured children, children received health care in doctors' offices rather than hospital emergency rooms. In 1996, emergency room visits dropped by 70 percent in areas of the state served by the new program, saving the state's taxpayers and consumers $13 million.

While educating our children remains essential, it is just as essential that we keep the issue of health care coverage for children on the front burner during 2000.

Healthy children are, in the long run, better educated, and our society will undoubtedly benefit from both. The richest nation on earth need not sacrifice health care for education. Surely we can make room in the U.S. budget for both.

Raise your voice for all of America's children. They deserve no less.

Carl E. Coan is president and chief executive officer of the Pediatric & Family Medical Center.

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