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Irwin Redlener, M.D. Headshot

The Dangers of Cutting Children's Health Programs to Balance the Budget

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There is no denying that in this difficult budget climate, politicians are facing tough decisions. Astronomical budget and debt challenges have given many experts cause for serious concern regarding the stability of the U.S. economy. State and federal programs -- including many that affect children -- are being slashed to balance budgets.

But what has been lost in the machinations of hot political debate are the long-term consequences for families who will see almost nothing but devastating cuts in vital programs needed to educate, support or treat children -- especially those with special vulnerabilities.

The most unfortunate irony is that cutting children's benefits saves very little money in the short term and could have serious long-term financial implications. Although children comprise nearly half of Medicaid enrollees, they account for only 20 percent of expenditures. Children are the least expensive to ensure, yet stand to lose the most if they don't receive the care they need to grow into productive adults.

The government will spend substantially more money treating these children's illnesses years later than it would have spent averting the illnesses through immunizations and other preventive care. Rather than saving money, politicians are simply passing a larger cost onto future generations.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently held up Texas as an example of misplaced priorities when it comes to spending. Texas ranks low in high school graduation rates and high in child poverty and uninsured children. Yet, Gov. Rick Perry intends to shrink Texas' budget gap by cutting Medicaid and reducing provider reimbursement rates. With 2.5 million Texas children currently depending on Medicaid for health insurance coverage, such a move would be disastrous.

Dr. Susan Spalding is the medical director of the Children's Health Fund's Dallas program, which serves as a safety net for kids who lack access to medical care or do not have any form of insurance. Without Medicaid, many of the children Dr. Spalding treats are already unable to access the limited subspecialty care that Medicaid covers, like x-rays and developmental services. And many babies in Texas are dropped from Medicaid due to eligibility requirements that make it more difficult for families to qualify after the child's first birthday. With so many children already unable to access Medicaid, Dr. Spalding fears the situation will only get worse with further cuts.

Cutting children's health care isn't wise from a community health perspective, nor does it make fiscal sense. Today's meager gain will trigger tomorrow's increased costs associated with chronic conditions left untreated. There's no savings in that.

Politicians need to identify alternative means of balancing state and federal budgets. Cutting health care funding for children is not a wise investment strategy. The savings are slim, and the costs to children's health, including devastating long-term consequences, are much too high.