What helps keep children healthy? Access to an attorney!

An apple a day?  What really helps keep low-income children healthy is access to medical care – and that often takes access to an attorney!

Children's Health DayIn theory, our state’s low-income children should all have access to health care through a complex array of state and private health programs.  To be able to take their children to the doctor, parents frequently have to navigate the complicated map of Medi-Cal, AIM, Healthy Families, CHDP (Children’s Health & Disability Prevention) and privately available coverage. But, as a recent article in the New York Times Parenting blog so aptly states, enrolling in these programs can be like clearing a jungle of red tape with a weed wacker! (“When Parents Can’t Enroll in Medicaid, Children Stay Uninsured,” by Bryce Covert, 9/26/12).

For many families, just figuring out which program to apply for  – or how it interacts with privately available health insurance – is more complicated than filling out annual IRS tax return forms (and we all know how much fun those forms are!).  In some families, older and younger children are actually eligible for different health programs – with different types of access to medical care.  And if the parents’ income changes, children may have to transition from one health program to another.  Applying for these programs thrusts parents into a sometimes bizarre world of legal eligibility, federal and state regulations, confusing formulas for counting families’ income, and stacks and stacks of paperwork to fill out.  This maze of bureaucracy sadly leads to some children being incorrectly denied access to health insurance programs for which they are actually eligible – preventing them from accessing doctor appointments, medical treatment, and more.

Nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys can be the weed wackers that cut through red tape and increase children’s access to health care.

And even if parents are able to thread the application needles and obtain health coverage for their children, sometimes it is difficult to get the medical care prescribed by the doctor.  Both private and state health coverage programs have complicated review structures and just because a doctor writes a prescription for medicine, a piece of durable medical equipment, or speech or physical therapy is no guarantee that the health coverage program will actually approve – and provide – it.

This is where the lawyers come in.  Because these kids – and their families – face a sometimes overwhelming set of legal rules and regulations, lawyers are the ones who can serve as the weed wackers needed to cut through all the red tape.  When kids apply for a program and are denied, they have a right to appeal that decision – and that often takes a lawyer.  When a doctor prescribes a piece of medical equipment or a course of speech therapy that is denied by the health insurance plan, the family can appeal – and that often takes a lawyer.  Lawyers can be the ones who slice through the legal issues – allowing families and doctors to focus on what is most important – actually getting a child the treatment she needs.  In fact, there is a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that have formed the Health Consumer Alliance to focus on exactly that work – and their website, www.healthconsumer.org, has a wealth of resources for families.

The Medical-Legal Partnership for Children Team in Seattle combines medical and legal professionals.

Increasingly, doctors are also bringing lawyers into the medical system as team members in preventing children’s health problems. These Medical-Legal Partnerships bring nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys into the hospitals and medical clinics to work side by side with the doctors, providing legal assistance to children and families that complements the medical treatment they need.  For example, when a little boy with life-threatening asthma comes to a clinic, the doctor can prescribe the various inhalers he needs.  But when that boy returns to his mold-infested apartment – his asthma is triggered once again.  In these Medical-Legal Partnerships, the doctor can make a same-day referral to the attorney (sitting in the next office over) who then gets to work on negotiating with the family’s landlord to correct the illegal mold problem.  The little boy ends up with a safe housing environment and the prescriptions – a preventative legal measure coupled with medical treatment.  California is home to many of these cutting-edge collaborations. Some of these programs have lawyers doing rounds with the medical teams, and some even train law and medical students on how to work together.  Can we actually imagine a day when doctors and lawyers think of themselves first as allies in improving children’s health, rather than as antagonists over medical malpractice and other legal issues?

Today – October 1st – is national Children’s Health Day.  Created in 1928 by President Calvin Coolidge to spark or increase people’s awareness of ways to minimize or alleviate health problems that children may face, the day focuses on a range of child health issues such as prenatal care, adolescent health, the impact of daycare on a child’s development, preventing injuries, healthy eating and lifestyle choices, and immunization.  As part of the annual presidential proclamation for the day, organizations interested in child welfare are invited to observe exercises to stimulate or increase people’s awareness of the need for a year-round program to protect and develop children’s health in the United States, and health professionals and health organizations across the United States take part in this day through various activities and events.

So what do we advocate for Children’s Health Day?  We say bring on the lawyers who will fight to get children on the health insurance programs they need, make sure the doctor’s plans for treatment are approved and become more than just a piece of paper, and who team up with medical professionals for a holistic approach to the complicated medical and legal causes for health problems.

And did you know we are Pinning?  Pinterest (a content sharing service that allows members to “pin” images, videos and other objects to an online scrapbook) is growing increasingly popular as the next social media site.  While most people use the visual bookmarking site to plan weddings, sketch out gardens, or share clothes, jewelry and other designs, nonprofits are starting to use the site to communicate their mission and share helpful links and resources – and so are we!  So in honor of Children’s Health Day, we created a board dedicated to helping families find the health coverage programs – and legal advocates – that their kids might need. Happy Pinning!

Tell us what you think – can you imagine a day when there is a lawyer assigned to every medical team to ensure a holistic approach to the legal barriers that cause health problems?

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