By Amanda Litvinov
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Under the guise of replacing the Affordable Care Act, GOP lawmakers have proposed devastating cuts to the financing of Medicaid, the joint federal and state program that provides health coverage for more than 35 million children. Lawmakers have also left in question the fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers an additional 8.4 million kids.
If Congress proceeds with capping federal Medicaid dollars, health coverage or necessary services will be stripped away for millions of low income and disabled children. For many of these kids, that means they will no longer have access to the medical care and other vital services that keep them healthy and ready to learn.
One particular student comes to mind for Annette Stephens, a school bus driver from Davison, Mich., a small suburb of Flint. The student, who lives in subsidized housing, suffers from severe asthma and has ended up in the ICU twice this school year alone.
What would happen to him if he lost ready access to medical care?
“This kid’s parents have to worry about providing life sustaining medication and the possibility of huge hospital bills,” Stephens said. “That’s a lot on their plates, which means a lot on his, but priority one has to be keeping him breathing. That definitely requires continued health care.”
Educators across the country are speaking out against the reckless cuts being considered in Congress.
Wilfred Dunn, an Arkansas educator and long-time advocate for children’s health care, wants lawmakers to know that taking away health coverage from low-income children will create tremendous hardship for some of those children and their families.
“My job is to help students if they are having problems, whether they are academic or personal. Sometimes that does include resolving medical issues,” said Dunn, a former fifth-grade teacher who is now a guidance counselor at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Little Rock.
Over 80 percent of the kids at Dunn’s school qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
“We have a lot of single-parent families and young parents. They are doing the best they can and they all want to help their kids. But losing health coverage for their kids is the last thing they need,” Dunn said.
Educators know that untreated medical issues get in the way of students’ learning.
“I had a student this year whose Medicaid coverage was briefly interrupted, and she couldn’t get the ADHD medication she needs,” Dunn said. “Without it, she simply was not able to function in school and she was sent out of the classroom nearly every day.”
“During that three week period, she was a different child,” Dunn recalled. But once he was able to help restore her Medicaid coverage and she resumed her medication, she was able to fully participate, follow the rules, and learn.
Dunn knows many other students who rely on Medicaid to manage ongoing health needs, including juvenile diabetes and hearing problems. With treatment, those kids are ready for school. But without it, their classroom learning suffers.
“If a child feels sick or can’t hear or can’t see, how can they be learning at the rate they should be?” Dunn asks.
The National Education Association opposes Medicaid block grants or per capita caps, which would both result in reduced coverage and services for millions of children. A Medicaid cap would also generate even more competition for state dollars, meaning state education budgets would be at greater risk for cuts.
NEA strongly supports the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program early in 2017 so that states will have the certainty to continue providing health services to millions of children without disruption.
As lawmakers consider making changes, Dunn hopes they keep students like his in mind.
“Congress can play a role in helping level the playing field for these kids just like educators do,” Dunn said.
“Public education is for all of our kids, and we should not punish the ones who are low-income.”