The Coastal Post - June, 1997

Health Care For Children Low Priority In California

Health coverage for all children is sound, cost-effective preventive medicine, medical professionals and parents told Rep. Lynn Woolsey at a round table discussion at Marin General Hospital.

"The shocking fact is that California ranks 48th in the nation in the number of children who are covered by health insurance," said Rep. Woolsey. "Over 1.7 million children in our state-22,000 in Sonoma and Marin Counties alone-have no access to regular health care."

Rep. Woolsey is a co-sponsor of the Child Health Insurance and Lower Deficit Act in Congress that will provide health coverage for children. The bill proposes that a 43 cent cigarette tax to be used to fund health coverage. The bill requires each participating state to contract with insurance issuers, ensure that policies are available to all eligible children, and provide certain premium and cost-sharing payments. As a member of the House Budget Committee, she has also supported provisions in the five-year budget agreement which will set aside $16 billion over five years to provide health coverage to five million children.

"Most uninsured children are at risk of preventable illness," said Dr. Tom Peters, Marin County's Director of Health and Human Services. "More than half of uninsured children with asthma never see a doctor during the year. Many of these asthmatic children are hospitalized with problems that could be prevented. One third of uninsured children with recurring ear infections never see a doctor."

"Kids with what could have been minor ailments end up in the emergency room," said Dr. Bill Teufel, Director of Marin General Hospital's Emergency Department. "The cost is then borne by the public."

"From a public health point of view, not insuring all children is gambling with everyone's health," continued Dr. Peters. "Contagious diseases, particularly childhood diseases and tuberculosis, are making a comeback, and that puts everyone's child at risk."

"Investing in health insurance for our children is not only the right thing to do, it is also cost-effective and can save money in the long run," Rep. Woolsey stated. Woolsey pointed out that each dollar invested to immunize a child saves between $3.40 and $16.34 in direct medical costs, and prenatal care can be one-tenth the cost of hospital care for low-weight babies.

Parents told Woolsey about instances when medical care for their children was put off because of their lack of health coverage. Employers of many working parents do not offer health coverage for children. State programs for low-income parents usually only cover a portion of health costs-and the parent's share is frequently overwhelming. Parents are caught in the bind of having too high an income for state health benefits, but too low an income to afford child health insurance.

"I certainly sympathize with you," said Woolsey to the parents. "As a working single mother 30 years ago, I'd lie awake at night worrying about my kids' sore throats and headaches. Finally, though I continued working, I went on welfare, just so my children would be covered."

Nearly one out of five uninsured children live in California, and sadly, the situation is getting worse, not better. According to statistics compiled by the Children's Defense Fund, in 1987-89, 65.8% of the state's children had health coverage. That number dropped in the '93-'95 period to 55.7%.

Since 1989, the number of children without private coverage in the U.S. has grown by an average of 1.2 million a year-or nearly 3,300 a day. If these trends continue, 12.6 million will be uninsured in the year 2000.