Guaranteeing the health and success of Maine’s children

Posted Dec. 28, 2010, at 10:52 p.m.

It is imperative, when considering the future direction of our state, that we provide our children with a healthy foundation upon which to start their lives. Maine’s children are the key factor in ensuring a renewed vitality to Maine’s economy and a vibrant future work force.

This past Election Day ushered in a new era in Maine politics, transforming the state from one run by Democrats to one run by Republicans literally overnight. Maine’s high level of participation in social service programs was an often-broached topic in this election cycle by most of the gubernatorial candidates. Change was on the horizon for Maine; now, the question to ask ourselves is, “How much change is coming, and how will it affect Maine’s children?”

The news media have hinted at some possibilities, specifically a close adviser to Gov.-elect LePage announcing ending Dirigo, along with likely cuts to Medicaid and to the food stamp program. It goes without saying that these changes will affect Mainers’ access to health and health care. There is no question that changes are needed and are indeed welcome, but these alterations to our state’s governance also must guarantee Maine’s children the opportunity of a bright future.

The possible changes to public health programs in Maine appear limitless at the moment. Nationally, drastic proposals have been suggested, most notably by the governor of Texas, who recently expressed interest in the state withdrawing entirely from the Medicaid program.

The direction our new state leaders will take us is receiving wide speculation among everyone I speak with in Augusta these days. Alterations in public programs appear imminent. The question I hope is being asked by anyone involved in the deliberations of programmatic changes is, “How will they affect the health and well-being of Maine’s children?”

It would be a shame if the only chance kids had for success depended on their socioeconomic status. In Maine, this is not the case. Yet children significantly are prevented from achieving success by poor health and lack of access to effective preventive care.

A fear of mine, and surely of my colleagues throughout the public health community, is that reductions in state funding may directly affect health services available to children from low-income families, resulting in greater harm than benefit to them.

An important study from researchers at the University of Chicago regarding the impact of public insurance availability on children’s educational outcomes was published in 2009. The researchers determined that the availability of public insurance and subsequent coverage of low-income children increased their educational outcomes. It also is significant that the earlier a child has insurance coverage — namely, at birth — the better their educational attainment.

Any changes to social services also must consider how to reduce poverty simultaneously. Anti-poverty measures improve health and educational outcomes, increasing the chance that Maine’s children will grow up to be healthy and successful adults.

I strongly suggest that the new administration, as well as the leadership of the House and Senate, collaborate with their colleagues in the health and public health sectors when planning changes to current coverage for Maine’s children. We must guarantee Maine a fiscally responsible means to a better future for all, and it will take collaboration to make it work.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist in Augusta and a board member of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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