MONTPELIER -- A new report says growing income inequality will have a negative impact on the health of Vermont's children.
Childhood poverty in the state has increased 25 percent since 2007, according to an annual report compiled by Voices for Vermont's Children.
"Even in the healthiest state, we are not all equally healthy," the authors wrote. The report, "The State of Our Children: KIDS COUNT," was issued Friday and is part of a national initiative by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization "dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States."
Childhood poverty has lasting impacts on physical and social-emotional health and can result in long-term health complications, including stunted growth, obesity and a host of developmental issues, according to the report.
Despite the sobering growth in childhood poverty, the report makes a number of positive findings, too.
The rate of teen pregnancy is trending downward, the number of Vermonters receiving benefits through WIC -- the federal nutrition assistance program for women, infants and children -- has held steady, and Vermont's infant mortality rate remains below the national average at just under five per 1,000 births.
Vermont has also made an impact on childhood hunger by increasing access to school meals and 3SquaresVT, the state's food stamp program. Enrollment in school meal programs has increased 100 percent in the past decade, according to the report.
The report also finds that the vast majority of Vermont children, 98 percent, have health care coverage. Forty-six percent of Vermont children had coverage through Dr. Dynasaur, the state's publicly financed health care program for children and pregnant women, according to the report. Dr. Dynasaur is the state's expanded version of the Children's Health Insurance Plan, the federal Medicaid program for children.
One downside, however, is that children covered through the program are having trouble accessing dental care, the report shows. Forty percent of children with dental coverage through Dr. Dynasaur did not receive any kind of dental care, according to a 2011 Pew study cited in the report.
Because of low payments, it can be difficult to find a dentist that will take Dr. Dynasaur patients, said Sarah Teel, a research analyst with Voice for Vermont's Children. That's because many dentists and oral surgeons can't afford to take the lower Medicaid reimbursement rates, she said. Vermont also has a shortage of dentists, Teel said.
"If (Vermont Health Connect) helps us cover more children, that's a good thing, but it doesn't solve the access problem," Teel said, "We need to increase the availability and accessibility of practitioners who accept whatever dental coverage children happen to have."
Her organization is pushing bills before the Legislature, S.35 and H.273, which would create a dental practitioner position, which would have a limited in scope of practice, to increase access to basic oral health care.
The report also notes that Vermont's childhood immunization rate lags well behind the national rate, with the most recent data from 2011 showing the state at 52 percent and the rest of the country at 73 percent. It sets a goal of 90 percent vaccination rate for Vermont's children by 2020.
There are a number of bills to address the state's low vaccination rate. Among them are S.194 calling for immunization rates to be posted at schools, and ones to remove the religious and philosophical exemption should schools fall below a 90 percent immunization rate, S.102 and H.138. Immunization has been a hot-button issue in the Legislature in recent years, with opponents of vaccinations raising health concerns and issues of individual rights.
The chairs of both the Senate and House Health Care committees said none of the bills are likely to see any progress this session.