The latest report assessing how well Vermont is taking care of its children has both good news and bad.
First the good news: 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, according to an annual report compiled by Voices for Vermont's Children.
The report, "The State of Our Children: Kids Count," is part of a national initiative by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In it, the authors point to the growing income inequality and its effect on childhood poverty, which in Vermont has increased 25 percent since 2007. Much of that increase can be attributed to the Great Recession, but regardless of the reason, it's unacceptable.
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. These disadvantages often carry on into adulthood, which only serves to perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty here and across the country.
Fortunately, Vermont has a social safety net designed to combat some of the negative effects of poverty and give these children a fighting chance to end that vicious cycle. For example, Vermont has 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. Having a full belly instead of an empty one is certainly more conducive to learning, and a good education is the best way out of poverty.
Furthermore, the 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.
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 to increase access to basic oral health care. We hope the Legislature gives these bills serious consideration because inadequate dental care can have negative effects on a child's overall health, not to mention poor self-image and self-esteem issues that could create psychological problems lasting well into adulthood.
One final aspect of the report worth noting is 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, VTDigger reports.
Unfortunately, the chairs of both the Senate and House Health Care committees said none of the bills are likely to see any progress this session.
We realize the Legislature has a lot of pressing issues to deal with this year, not the least of which are projected budget shortfalls and a growing heroin epidemic, but we can't afford to ignore the needs of our children. To do so would leave too many stuck in poverty and in poor health, which would only make our state's revenue shortfalls and heroin problems even worse going forward.