How is the stock market? Just as critical, how are our kids?

From Tom Vitaglione, senior fellow at Action for Children North Carolina:

The financial crisis has North Carolinians paying special attention to their investments. Perhaps as never before, we are reading and listening to economic reports , as well as using the Internet to keep in touch with stock and commodities markets.

This overriding concern, coupled with the national and state political campaigns, may have led many to overlook a critical investment report that was released on Oct. 15: the 2008 North Carolina Child Health Report Card. Issued annually by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine and Action for Children North Carolina, the Report Card summarizes 16 leading indicators of the health and safety of our children.

The data provide reason for both celebration and concern. For the majority of the indicators, the trend is toward improvement, and for several – the immunization rate; the lead poisoning rate; the number of children with access to early intervention services – the data are truly encouraging. For other indicators – the uninsured rate; the infant and child death rates; the breastfeeding initiation rate – the data indicate possible stagnation, and this warrants concern. Finally, the data for some indicators – child abuse homicide; access to dental care; overweight children; the use of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit substances by our teens – reflect unacceptable risks to children and youth, and are cause for grave concern.

The underlying message, however, is that North Carolina's child health outcomes are not a matter of happenstance, nor are they inevitable. They invariably mirror investments made by adults: the attentiveness of parents, the hard work and perseverance of state and community agencies, and the fiscal and legislative investments made by the General Assembly.

By far the best returns can be achieved by investing in health insurance for our children. Studies confirm what seems intuitive: children with insurance have better access to preventive care, require fewer hospital stays, are generally healthier, and have fewer school absences. In fact, virtually every indicator on the Report Card is improved when more children are insured.

Regrettably, providing insurance for their children is an investment that has become increasingly difficult to make for the working families of our state. In fact, more than 13 percent of our children were uninsured in 2007. This percentage has been increasing in recent years because North Carolina has experienced one of the largest declines in employer-based insurance coverage. When families lose this assistance from employers, many find insurance premiums that are out of reach.

To their credit, both our state and federal governments have been attentive to this problem. In the past decade there have been expansions in public insurance coverage for children. Both the Easley administration and the General Assembly have joined in sponsoring increased investments in this regard, and last year more than 850,000 children were covered through Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice for Children. Without this expanded coverage, North Carolina's uninsured rate would have risen out of sight.

We are now faced with a paradox, and one that could put our children in jeopardy. The federal government has already demonstrated a reluctance to expand insurance coverage for children. And while our General Assembly has shown interest in expansion, it is predicted that it will face a large budget deficit when it returns in January. The paradox, of course, is that just when families need more help, our governments will be pressured into providing less help. If less help is provided, our children will suffer, and it will show in all the indicators of health and safety on the Report Card.

In fiscal crises, it is critical that the wisest investments be made. It is up to us, North Carolina's adults, to advocate for our children by letting our federal and state representatives know that insurance coverage is by far the wisest investment we can make on behalf of our children. As noted in the Report Card, children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future. They will soon be our leaders, our producers and our consumers. Now is the time for adults to make the investments that will assure a bright future for our state.