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State hearing calls for big healthcare reform

David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday December 06, 2001

OAKLAND – Doctors, activists and politicians called for a wholesale reform of California’s child healthcare system at a state hearing Wednesday morning at Children’s Hospital, convened by Assemblymember Wilma Chan (D-Oakland) and Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncans Mills). 

Chan and Strom-Martin held the hearing as part of their work with the Select Committee on Children’s Readiness and Health. The legislative committee is examining the connection between children’s health and their ability to perform in school. 

The Oakland hearing was the last of four such meetings sponsored by the committee across the state. The other three hearings took place in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Salinas. 

The committee has already made a series of findings, according to a document distributed at the Oakland hearing. The committee has found, among other things, that a lack of access to proper health care is a leading cause of truancy and failure, that dental disease “has reached epidemic proportions among school children,” affecting their ability to concentrate and learn, and that many school districts are waiving school entry physicals for children.  

The committee hopes to present a comprehensive package of legislation – part of it in January 2002, and part in January 2003 – aimed at improving children’s health and ability to perform in school. 

In an interview after the hearing, Chan, who chairs the committee, said she will push for inexpensive reforms after the holidays, citing the political realities of the state’s current budgetary shortfall.  

“I think these things that are very costly will have a hard time passing,” she said. Chan added that she hopes to pass more expensive measures, like an expansion of children’s healthcare, in 2003, if the economy recovers. 

Speakers at Wednesday’s hearing suggested several relatively inexpensive measures endorsed by Chan and Strom-Martin. 

Dr. Lucy S. Crain, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco noted that many managed care companies, unlike their fee-for-service predecessors, do not pay for a pre-natal visit to a pediatrician. These visits used to cover valuable ground, she said, everything from simple safety measures like car seats, to larger issues like adults’ readiness for parenthood. 

“There may be opportunities for counseling for parents that, in the long range, prevent child abuse and child neglect,” Crain said. 

“I think it would be good to restore that,” Chan said. “HMOs may not be happy,” she said, acknowledging the cost for managed care companies, “but it wouldn’t cost the state anything.” 

Chan said that she would also like to expand the required physical for young children entering California school systems to include a dental screening and a test for far-sightedness. Currently, the state requires no dental screening, and when it comes to vision, only requires a test for near-sightedness. 

Strom-Martin, who also acknowledged the difficulties of passing big-ticket items in the current climate, endorsed pre-natal visits to pediatricians, and a call for greater coordination among healthcare providers. 

Several of the speakers at the Wednesday hearing discussed the need for better cooperation among health care professionals. Dr. Rene Wachtel, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital, said many health care organizations do not accept evaluations of children performed by other agencies, wasting time and resources. 

Wachtel called for a state task force that would identify the best ways to assess children and encourage cross-agency acceptance of evaluations. She also said there must be better mechanisms in place for cooperation between health care professionals and school staff. 

In addition to the long-term effort to improve children’s health care, Chan and Strom-Martin said they will fight to maintain health care and education funds that Gov. Gray Davis has suggested slashing to balance the budget. 

Strom-Martin focused, in particular, on a $38 million grant program, approved by the legislature last year, that would allow school systems statewide to increase community outreach on health care issues and provide health care at local schools.