Children's health, poverty focus of faith-based Ecumenical Advocacy Days on Capitol Hill

March 15, 2007

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, made the plea: ''Each child is God's own beloved… How we treat each child is how we treat God... Every child needs and deserves health coverage.''

She addressed her words to the 1000-plus members of the faith community present in Washington, D.C., for Ecumenical Advocacy Days March 9-12.. ''God didn't make different classes of children and the U.S. should not continue its current inequitable treatment of children.''

This is the year that the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) expires. Funded only through September, Congress must reauthorize the program, cut it or expand it. That reality helped keep participants focused on how to influence Congress.

''This is the time for action,'' declared Lindsey Wade, policy associate with the Children's Defense Fund, to those preparing arguments for the legislators they would visit the final day of the gathering.

Advocacy Days, now in its fifth year, drew the religious community to Washington to lobby for a range of human rights and justice issues. Several days of workshops and training preceded their descent on Capitol Hill.

More than 50 churches and faith-based organizations, including the National Council of Churches and Church World Service, sponsor Advocacy Days. The theme this year, ''And How Are the Children?'' aimed a spotlight at ending child poverty. Speakers addressed domestic and global issues: unaccompanied children crossing the border, fixing the No Child Left Behind program, effects of the Middle East conflict on the region's children; the impact of U.S. security policies on children; effects of debt on Africa's children; escalating violence in Burma and the Philippines and a dozen more.

In the workshop on expanding health care insurance to cover all children in the country, Jennifer Beeson, co-director for government affairs for Families USA, spelled out the situation. ''We have 9 million children without health insurance in this country. That's the bad news. The good news is we've come a long way and we have an achievable goal in sight. It is very easy for us as a wealthy country to reach the rest of those kids and get them covered.''

Seven out of 10 uninsured children already qualify for public programs, said Beeson. Medicaid covers 25 million low-income children, pregnant women and elderly and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) covers another 4 million whose ''parents are working but who don't make enough to afford health insurance,'' Beeson explained.

''We know that children without health insurance are much more likely to suffer significant developmental problems or health problems,'' said Beeson. ''They are less likely to have a single source of care – less likely to go back to the same pediatrician. They do worse in hospitals. Children who have health insurance do much better in school, have better attendance records.''

Beeson told her fledgling lobbyists that ''the ask,'' the proposal they should be making to the legislators, is $60 billion over the next five years. ''When you go to the Hill and you ask for a lot of money you always get push back. It is your job to use your moral arguments and your faith arguments'' to convince the lawmakers. ''You can also use economic arguments,'' she said. Then she gave them a bit of ammunition.

''I want to tell you a story that happened here locally. It illustrates the stakes.'' Beeson described a family that lost their Medicaid coverage when they had to move into a shelter. The renewal form, sent to their old address, was never returned. The son, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, had an abscess tooth that needed to be pulled. His mother didn't have $80 for a dentist. The infection spread to Deamonte's brain. He died.

''That's nuts,'' said Beeson. ''We could have spent $80 to send that kid to a dentist and saved a life. It's very bad economics.''

Wade provided more ammunition. ''No child should be a victim of the lottery of geography,'' she said, explaining that differing state regulations meant thousands went without health care. ''We want to create one program so that every child has access to the same health care package.''

She outlined another change advocates should request: insurance that ''covers everything a child needs'' including adequate mental health services. ''Twenty visits per year or less – that's not even twice a month,'' she said, describing what CHIP provides now.

''We know families across the country that can't afford to get their children the mental health care they need,'' said Wade. ''Those families are forced to resign custody and put those children in public institutions because they cannot access the services in this wealthy country.''

The solution is simplification, said Wade. She described the program the Children's Defense Fund wants to see adopted: coverage for every child in families with income levels below 300 percent of the poverty line ($60,000 for a family of four); automatic enrollment when the family enrolls for any ''means tested '' service such as school lunches; an end to premiums so that children aren't penalized when parents forget to pay or cannot pay; and an increase in reimbursement rates to care providers so that doctors will be more willing to accept the children as patients. The CDF also wants children who ''age out'' of the foster care program to receive health coverage at ages 19 and 20 as they start their working lives.

''The cost of our proposal,'' said Wade, ''the five-year total to get all children covered would be about $70 billion. To include the [increased] provider reimbursement rates, the five year total would be $137 billion for five years.''

The annual cost would be $26 billion. ''That's less than three and a half months in Iraq,'' said Wade. ''It's 16 days of military spending.'' Or, as Beeson pointed out, ''If we rolled back President Bush's 'extra' tax breaks that he gave the wealthiest 1 percent, just for this year, we'd have more than $60 billion.''

''So don't let your members of Congress tell you that they can't find the money,'' said Wade. ''We know that when they have the right pressure… when they feel that they can't get away with something, that something is in their best interest, they will find the money. And this is in their best interest. This is in the best interest of all our children.''