Another election season is coming to a close, and once again, candidates for local and state offices across the country have made all kinds of promises about what they'll do for us if we give them our votes. But once they are in office, will we hold them accountable for keeping all these promises?
We all need to be listening very carefully to what our politicians say they will do for children and families, and we then need to watch very carefully to make sure their actions match their words. The Children's Defense Fund recently received an update from our Texas office about the ways children in their state who have been promised health care coverage are continuing to be let down. It's a story that's being repeated across the country.
The problems in Texas recently made the front page of the Houston Chronicle with one boy's especially troubling story. Thirteen-year-old Devante Johnson has advanced kidney cancer, so it's clear he can't afford to go without health care coverage. As state Rep. Sylvester Turner told the Chronicle, "We're not talking about a cold or some stomach ailment. This one was literally life or death, where every single day is critical for this kid." But earlier this year, Devante spent four desperate months without health insurance because of bureaucratic mix-ups.
Until April, Devante and his two younger brothers were covered by Medicaid. Texas families who qualify for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program are required to renew their coverage every six months, and Devante's mother had tried to get a head start by sending in her paperwork early before their family's April 30 expiration deadline. But their application first sat for six weeks before being processed and then was transferred to the agency in charge of the Children's Health Insurance Program because an employee believed their family no longer qualified for Medicaid. At that point, the paperwork was lost in the system.
Devante's mother grew more and more desperate as attempts to track it down and reinstate his coverage went unanswered while she watched Devante getting worse. His doctors at Texas Children's Hospital continued to care for him after he lost his health coverage, but a new treatment option at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center seemed to be his best chance — and Devante couldn't be admitted to that program without insurance.
It wasn't until Turner's office got involved in August that Devante's coverage was reinstated. Two days later, Devante was able to start the new treatment, and right now his doctors are optimistic. But the dangerous delay in his care could have been avoided. No child should have to wait four months while his or her tumors grow. Devante's case may sound extreme, but he is still far from alone.
Our Texas office has helped a number of other families trying to navigate receiving health coverage for their children and recently worked with a mother whose teenage son has serious mental health needs and who had been trying for months to apply for the Children's Health Insurance Program without success. The mother was rationing her son's medications, cutting pills in half, until the fund was able to get his Children's Health Insurance Program coverage activated by appealing to the highest levels of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. She sent Barbara Best, executive director of the Texas Children Defense Fund, the following letter:
"If [you and your staff] had not intervened in my case my son would be dead by now. … This isn't just an issue of children being inconvenienced and having to wait a little longer for health coverage. This is a matter of life and death for many Texas children.
"This is a matter of the parents having to look at themselves each day and feeling like they have failed their children. They see them suffering but cannot do anything to help.... The saddest fact of all is that it shouldn't be that way; we live in a country where our children shouldn't have to suffer. The fact that we have a program in place, but children are being unjustly denied benefits should boil every Texan's blood."
This Texas parent was writing about her particular experience, but the fact that more than 9 million children are uninsured across our country and millions more are underinsured or having problems receiving the coverage for which they are eligible should boil every American's blood. If we could afford trillions in tax breaks for the wealthy, we can afford the far fewer billions needed to build healthy and educated children. Please join our campaign to get prenatal, health, and mental health care to every child in 2007. And insist that everyone elected to represent you and your family this November makes this not just a promise, but a priority.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.