It's hard to believe but it's true that the world's wealthiest nation, the United States, has some 9 million children who have no health insurance coverage. That's bad enough but to make matters worse this horrible situation really need not exist.
Of the 9 million without coverage, 6 million are eligible for either Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known more familiarly as S-chip. This program covers children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private health insurance. The remaining 3 million apparently are not covered by any program.
Given these two excellent programs, how can we justify the fact that so many children are not covered by any health insurance? One prime factor is the lack of proper funding to cover the programs. Also, families are not aware that their children are eligible for coverage as the result of complicated regulations that discourage them from signing up.
The S-chip program was started 10 years ago and is now up for reauthorization. It most certainly should get congressional approval and in addition be expanded to cover the millions of uncovered children. One of the pending proposals would expand the S-chip program at a cost of $10 billion a year and would cover millions of additional children. Sounds like a lot of money, but it's comparatively little when compared to the costs of the Iraqi war.
Making matters worse is the budget proposal of President Bush that would allocate only $4.8 billion in new funding for S-chip over the next five years. If this is accepted without any increase, the Congressional Budget Office says the coverage for 1.4 million children would be wiped out. That indeed would be inexcusable and would add to an already existing problem.
Two major advocates for children are appalled at the situation concerning the lack of health coverage for children. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, and Dr. Irwin Remlener, president of the Children's Health Fund, say that leaving children uninsured "is a form of Russian roulette." All children, they feel strongly, should be covered by health insurance.
Both of these advocates say that "children who grow up with poor access to health care carry a high risk of having undiagnosed and under-treated chronic illness, both physical and emotional. We should fully fund this effort at the $50 billion level and make coverage mandatory for children."
The Bush administration does not appear to be too concerned about the plight of the uninsured children. Just recently the Department of Health and Human Services said its study showed that the total number of children eligible but uninsured stands at only 794,000. That certainly significantly disagrees with the numbers projected by the Congressional Budget Office, which agrees with the 6 million figure put forward by most researchers who have studied the problem.
The plight of the millions of children without health insurance has not been fully explored by any of the candidates for the presidency. It is indeed time for those concerned about the future of our nation to sit up and speak up for our children. It is an urgent matter and one that should capture the imagination of all who care about our younger generation.
An encouraging sign for the near future is the fact that many states are planning to cope with the problem of the nation's uninsured, most certainly including our children. Democrats are currently planning to make health insurance a prominent issue in the upcoming presidential election. Hillary Clinton has listed affordable and accessible health care for all as one of her top issues. I would hope that all candidates, Republican and Democrat, would join in that endeavor.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News