Healthy Children, Healthy State

For the second straight year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed scaling back or completely eliminating the state’s Healthy Families Program. Healthy Families provides health, vision, and dental benefits to children whose family incomes are too high for them to qualify for Medi-Cal. The Governor’s recent proposals would result in 203,300 children in families earning more than $36,620 — 200 percent of the poverty line — losing coverage. The remaining 680,000 would lose their vision benefits, meaning they would no longer be able to see an eye doctor or fill a prescription for eyeglasses. In the worst case, the Governor’s proposals would completely eliminate the program, leaving all 880,000 children currently enrolled without health coverage. Ironically, just a few short years ago, this Governor had proposed universal children’s coverage in his comprehensive health reform proposal.

There are quantifiable impacts to the Governor’s proposals, such as the fact that the state would lose nearly $826 million in federal matching dollars for the $222 million in state dollars saved by whittling down, and eventually eliminating Healthy Families. This means that the impact of the Governor’s proposed cut on the California economy would be more than triple the amount of the state savings.

Beyond the dollars, there are also the impacts that cannot be easily counted, such as the lost opportunities for children who, without eyeglasses, will not be able to see the chalkboard. Without proper treatment of health conditions, others may find it difficult to concentrate in class. The Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board, which administers the Healthy Families Program, has studied the impact of the Healthy Families Program. It found that after two years, newly enrolled children initially considered “at risk,” with the lowest parent-reported health status, saw improvements in their physical health. More dramatically, however, the study reported that these children showed sharp improvements in their ability to pay attention in class, as well as their ability to keep up with school activities.

Tightening the vice on the Healthy Families Program, and thereby limiting children’s ability to be healthy and productive, comes at a time when policymakers are discussing ways to improve academic performance for all children. As we begin our discussion of the state’s spending priorities, it will be important to consider not just the dollar savings of today, but the investment we could make in tomorrow.

— Hanh Kim Quach

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