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Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools

Poor health care for students means lower performance in school.

By Kristen Loschert

You wouldn’t think a regular dental checkup could mean the difference between life and death. But that was the case earlier this year for 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, a seventh-grader in Prince George’s County, Maryland. What started as a tooth infection, which a dentist could have corrected with a routine tooth extraction, ultimately led to a fatal brain infection for the boy. But Driver never saw a dentist—by the time his family found a provider who would accept Medicaid, their insurance coverage was cancelled.

Nationwide, 9 million children do not have health insurance, and many others lack access to medical and dental care. Most are from lower-income families. Research shows that the uninsured are less likely to receive the routine health and dental checkups most families take for granted. In fact, 28 percent of uninsured children do not have a usual place for medical care, compared with just 2 to 3 percent of children covered by private and public insurance programs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

While the lack of preventative medical care does not always have fatal consequences, it does impact a child’s overall well-being, along with his or her performance in school.

In general, lower-income children are in poorer health than middle-class children, a situation that contributes to academic disparities between poor and affluent students, says Richard Rothstein, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, in his book Class and Schools.

For instance, low-income children with asthma are 80 percent more likely than middle-class students to miss seven or more days of school a year as a result of their disease because their symptoms go untreated more often, Rothstein says. To add to the problem, low-income families often simply can’t find a doctor who will see them consistently.

“There are very few primary care physicians located in low-income communities,” Rothstein explains. “Health insurance entitles families to emergency care for their children, but does not, practically speaking, lead to the routine and preventative care that middle-class families take for granted.”

A study in California, for example, found that high-poverty urban neighborhoods with high concentrations of minority residents had just one primary care physician for every 4,000 residents. More affluent White neighborhoods, meanwhile, had one doctor for every 1,200 residents.

“Poor children lose 30 percent more days from school than the non-poor, on average,” Rothstein writes in his book. “The difference in school attendance, attributable to differences in access to health care alone, causes a difference in average achievement between black and white children. Good teaching can’t do much for children who aren’t in school.”

Publicly subsidized insurance programs, like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), have improved health care access for roughly 34 million children. (Medicaid covers children living at or near the federal poverty level, while SCHIP covers low-income children ineligible for Medicaid.) A Kaiser Family Foundation report even found that children enrolled in SCHIP showed improved school attendance, greater attention in class, and increased participation in school activities. But federal funding for the 10-year-old SCHIP was due to expire September 30, and at press time, the President was threatening to veto efforts by Congress to expand the program.

“Working people who don’t have health insurance tend to be in the lower-income bracket and couldn’t afford coverage even if their employers offered it,” explains Carol Malone, senior health care specialist in NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy. “SCHIP targets those children.”

As part of the National Coalition on Health Care, NEA supports national health care reform, including better, more accessible health care for all.

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