Thank you Congressman Stokes for the fine work you have done in assembling this group to call attention to the health care needs of children.
And a very special thank you to Precious Thomas, for your courage and your eloquence. You are an inspiration to people of all ages and a true champion in the cause to educate our nation about the health issues that affect our children.
The health of our nation's children is something each of us here today cares deeply about. The Clinton-Gore Administration shares that concern and has helped make accessible health care for children a priority and a reality in this country.
Access to meaningful health care coverage for children was a major priority of the budget legislation signed by President Clinton in August. It represents the largest investment in children's health care since the passage of Medicaid in 1965. The $24 billion allocated in the budget legislation will provide meaningful health care coverage for up to five million of our nation's uninsured children.
This budget also allows states to design their own benefits packages while ensuring a full range of benefits that children need to grow strong and healthy. It ensures that prescription drugs, vision, hearing and mental health coverage now offered at the state level, are extended to millions of America's children. As Advisor to the President on Mental Health, I consider the inclusion of mental health coverage a great victory for our families and for our nation as a whole.
Between eight and twelve million of America's children currently suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Nearly half are severely disabled by mental illness. At most, one quarter of these children have been receiving treatment for their disorders. For the first time in our nation's history, full access to treatment for mental illness will be available to a majority of the children who need it.
But, of course, this is only the start. We must also continue to lift the stigma associated with mental illness. We must educate families and parents of children that the brain and attendant mental illness is part of the body and should be treated like all other illnesses. We must educate society and erase the fear, myths and stereotypes that have been ingrained for so many years.
The children's health initiative offers an unprecedented opportunity to reduce some of the disparities in health care for those most at risk, including the African-American community. African-American children, who are more likely be uninsured, face a higher incidence of health problems and a higher mortality rate than the general population.
As you know all too well:
African Americans have the highest infant mortality rate of all American ethnic groups.
Infant mortality rates among African American children are higher, in part due to the number of infants who contract AIDS in the womb.
African American babies are two to three times more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome than white babies.
Black youth, who represent 15 percent of the total youth population, account for 38 percent of all AIDS cases among teens.
Other major health issues affecting African-American children include low birth weight due to the in utero exposure of the infant to drugs, and lead poisoning, a major problem affecting urban children.
The Clinton-Gore Administration has taken steps to address these alarming statistics. In addition to expanded coverage, the budget law will also provide low-income families protection from the burden of excessive cost sharing.
We are extremely proud that the Congress acted to pass the children's health initiative. However, we now face an even greater challenge -- translating this legislation into real health care coverage for millions of our nation's uninsured children. Secretary Shalala is working to implement this legislation, which she will tell you more about, and she has the solid support of everyone in this Administration, from the President on down.
But we also need your help. This legislation also has the potential to make a substantial impact on minority children who -- as you well know -- disproportionately join the ranks of the uninsured. We need you to work to develop a children's program in your state that fits the needs of your communities and guarantees the meaningful benefits our children must have to lead healthy lives.
And, we understand that this is only the first step in an ongoing process.
While access to improved health care coverage will expand as a result of this legislation, this alone is not enough to guarantee healthy Americans. We should ensure that new health policy takes into account the realities of poverty and discrimination; the need for greater access to services in inner cities; and the development of culturally-appropriate services to fully meet the needs of all Americans. We must work together to think creatively about how to reach uninsured children -- to work through our churches, schools or local pharmacies -- to make sure this legislation changes the lives of millions of children forever.
Common sense solutions and both short- and long-term goals, such as expanding the community of African American health care providers, can have far-reaching effects.
I am encouraged to learn that awareness and action have already begun to take place in health care facilities across the nation, including those that focus on mental health.
For example, the Washburn Child Guidance Center, a leading Minneapolis mental health center, announced plans to use a $1 million gift to expand its work with African-American children and families as well as its African American staff trained in psychology.
The Centers for Disease Control recently announced plans to fund three community health projects in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta that could yield information about maternal stress and infant mortality among African Americans.
Our "Back to Sleep" campaign, which is part of expanded public education efforts designed to help prevent SIDS, has also found encouraging results.
These efforts are paying off. A new report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics found that our nation is healthier than it has been in years. Life expectancy reached a record high, with the gap narrowing between the life expectancy rates of African Americans and whites. SIDS is down 15 percent. Birth rates among teenagers dropped by 12 percent since 1991, with the largest decline among African American teens. Low-birthweight births among African American women fell to its lowest rate since 1987.
And, the best news of all is a new study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development on health risks among young people which found that positive relationships with parents and teachers, regardless of whether a child comes from a one-or two-parent household, are the strongest factors in children avoiding activities which lead to health risks.
I commend each of you here today for taking the important first step of addressing and analyzing the issues in such a productive forum as this.
And, I would like to personally thank Congressman Stokes and the members and supporters of the Congressional Black Caucus for your leadership and support. The President, First Lady, Al and I are working hard to do what is right for America and it has always been comforting to know that the CBC is a friend.
1. "The Health of African Americans" by June Jackson Christmas, M.D., Executive Director of the Urban Issues Group, The National Urban League, State of Black America, 1996.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCHS, as reported in Health United States, 1996-97.
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