Child Watch® Column: "A National Day of Social Action for Health Care"

Release Date: July 11, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman

There are 9.4 million uninsured children in America today—one child in eight—and millions more are underinsured, but not enough adults are stepping up to change this disgraceful reality. So to raise awareness about the problem, on July 11, thousands of children participating in the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program across the country took part in a National Day of Social Action. In colorful t-shirts, children marched holding signs calling for "Health Coverage for Every Child" and "Children Can't Wait." Others sent letters and made phone calls to Members of Congress demanding that every child in America have comprehensive health and mental health coverage now. They also sought endorsements from their Congressional delegations of the All Healthy Children Act (S. 1564/H.R. 1688) to expand health coverage to all children and pregnant women.

This summer, CDF Freedom Schools programs are serving nearly 9,000 children at 132 sites in 61 cities and 24 states. Hundreds of children from the 10 CDF Freedom Schools program sites in the Washington, D.C., area marched from Union Station to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. This was not an expensive K Street lobbying effort—you didn't see many blue suits in the crowd. But the cause for which these children were marching must be a top national priority.

The reason millions of children are without health coverage is not for lack of parental love. Many working families simply find paying for private health insurance for their children financially out of reach. Increases in private health insurance costs are dramatically outpacing increases in wages. Since 2001, the cost of health insurance premiums has increased four times as fast as workers' earnings. Even if an employer offers health insurance and a worker is eligible, the family may not be able to afford its share of the annual premium.

And the federal programs—Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—which provide a safety net for families that can't afford to insure their children don't go far enough. Health coverage programs for low-income children vary widely from state to state, with different standards for eligibility, cost sharing, and benefits in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This lottery of geography affects whether a child has coverage, what benefits are covered, and what treatment children can access and afford. As a result, these variations often have serious consequences for the health and well-being of our most vulnerable children. In addition, many of America's overlooked and uninsured children are eligible but not enrolled in federally supported health insurance programs primarily because of daunting bureaucratic barriers—often an arduous application process with complicated forms. It's not uncommon for parents with chronically sick children to spend months trying to navigate the system. Some give up without success.

Under the All Healthy Children Act, the income eligibility level would be increased so that more children could get the coverage they need. Bureaucratic barriers to coverage would be eliminated. Children currently enrolled in Medicaid, SCHIP, and other means-tested federal programs like school lunch and food stamps would be enrolled automatically. Reimbursement rates to health care providers would be increased so that more doctors would be available to children needing services. This would bring thousands of doctors and dentists into the pool of caregivers who currently won't take patients covered by Medicaid and SCHIP.

Ensuring that children have affordable access to timely health care is smart policy. Every dollar spent vaccinating children against measles, mumps, and rubella saves $16 in future costs. A child's health status affects his or her academic performance too. The reading scores and school attendance of uninsured children improve dramatically after they become insured and are able to access health care. Good health status in childhood is also associated with increased future earning potential.

At the Children's Defense Fund, we believe that it is unjust and wrong in the richest nation on earth for any child not to receive health care when they need it. The United States provides health care to all senior citizens. Children should be treated as justly. And children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover.

Sometimes, as in the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, children themselves play a crucial leadership role in righting terrible wrongs. The children participating in the CDF Freedom Schools National Day of Social Action on July 11 raised their young voices to urge our lawmakers to embrace a moral obligation, namely, the obligation to provide health coverage for all children in America. We adults need to join them.

Learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program at: www.childrensdefense.org/freedomschools.


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