The Children’s Defense Fund is in the midst of a national campaign to convince Congress and the President to enact legislation this year to extend health care coverage of all children in America, including the nine million who currently are uninsured. Children need inoculations against diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, preventive dental care and treatments for chronic illnesses like asthma. They also need prompt treatment for toothaches before they infect other parts of their bodies. Seventh grader Deamonte Driver from Prince Georges County, Maryland, died in February from complications after bacteria from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain.
It is also vital that policy makers include mental health care among the expanded benefits guaranteed to all uninsured and underinsured children. I’d like to share the story of a child with serious mental health problems who did not have access to insurance for years. When he finally did receive coverage, it turned his life around.
Lorna Harvey is a self-employed small business owner and single parent from Houston, Texas, who cannot afford private health insurance. Her son Kyle is a nine year-old-boy with bright red hair and a wide smile who suffers from severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Lorna came to Washington to participate in CDF’s family and faith leaders Witness for Health Care in March to share with others her three-year struggle to obtain treatment for Kyle. She called on her Members of Congress to tear down the obstacles to obtaining care for other children with similar mental health problems.
During the trip to Washington, Kyle got off his medication schedule and Lorna reexperienced the anguish of years past when his ADHD was in full force—hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and distractibility. Kyle also has chronic asthma and gets migraine headaches that require ongoing medical attention. Fighting back tears, Lorna described how their lives were a living torment. The schools Kyle attended were not equipped to test for and identify his health problems. He was failing academically, and his teachers and school officials told her that Kyle had below average intelligence. He was treated like a pariah by classmates and had no friends at school. At one point, Kyle wanted to kill himself.
Lorna couldn’t get a medical explanation for her son’s disturbing behavior. He had no pediatrician and often went to the emergency room when his asthma and migraines flared up. Three years ago, she learned about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and was able to get Kyle enrolled. With this health coverage, Lorna was able to have Kyle seen by a pediatric specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital and the diagnosis of ADHD was made. After several trials, a daily cocktail of antipsychotic and mood-altering medications to control his hyperactivity as well as other medications was developed to address all of his health problems. The medications cost more than $700 a month.
This much needed psychiatric care has literally changed Kyle’s life. He went to camp last summer. He is now on the A-B honor roll of his school and has become a poster child success story for the Fort Bend County School District.
This progress did not come without setbacks. Kyle’s health coverage was arbitrarily cancelled last August because SCHIP administrators couldn’t calculate Lorna’s income. This created a crisis for Lorna who earns an average of $2,000 a month and still is unable to afford private insurance. Having to pay for all of Kyle’s medications would have been a financial disaster. Fortunately, with the intervention of her State Representative, Charlie Howard, and the Texas office of the Children’s Defense Fund, his coverage was reinstated after two days.
This illustrates, however, the precarious position of so many working families. Lorna and her son live just above the poverty level, but Lorna works hard to build her business so she can provide a better life for Kyle. But she is ever mindful of the fact that if she earns just one dollar over the income limit for SCHIP eligibility, he will lose his health coverage. “I want a better life, I want the best treatment and the best medication for my son,” she says. “I want the best future for Kyle.” She adds that just as the government would not take a hearing aid away from a hearing impaired child, the government should not take psychiatric care from a child who suffers from mental illness.
We all pray that a crisis like the one that visited the Harvey family doesn’t touch someone we love. And we all must not forget and speak up for thousands of Katrina’s children still waiting for their country to provide them mental health care to heal their post-traumatic stress disorders more than a year and a half after the disastrous hurricane struck Louisiana and Mississippi. We must treat children like Kyle as though they are our own. We must protect them and keep them well. We must press for passage of the All Healthy Children Act (H.R. 1688) that will guarantee health and mental health care for all children and pregnant women in America regardless of the lottery of birth or geography. To help, go to staging.childrensdefense.org/healthychild.