At the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, supervisors Salud Carbajal (pictured above, left), Joe Centeno (pictured above, right), and Janet Wolf charged staff with searching the county’s budget for $1 million to provide health coverage to some of the county’s uninsured children. A 2005 Children’s Health Initiative report stated that up to 16,000 children-14.1 percent of all underage county residents-lack insurance. And a 2006 study by the Campaign for Children’s Health Care posits that uninsured children are five times more likely to have unmet dental, vision, prescription drug, or mental healthcare needs.
With $1 million, 742 children-in addition to the roughly 500 children already being served-could be helped through the Healthy Kids Program, which is run by the Santa Barbara Regional Health Authority. The SBRHA also administers Medi-Cal and Healthy Families-the latter of which is a state program that since 1998 has decreased the number of uninsured children in California. Children are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis for coverage in the county, and according to SBRHA deputy CEO Bob Freeman, there are currently no open spots.
A list of staff options suggested using tobacco settlement money to fund children’s healthcare, an idea some supervisors liked. In Santa Barbara County, the Tobacco Settlement Advisory Committee doles out roughly $4 million received from the state’s settled lawsuits against the tobacco industry. In 1999, the Board of Supervisors allotted that money for health programs. Centeno said he is less supportive of spending money on people who choose to use cigarettes and alcohol than on children who didn’t choose to get sick. Furthermore, a potential benefit of helping more children enroll in the program is that certified application assisters can identify children eligible for Medi-Cal or Healthy Families insurance coverage but not receiving it.
One of the main questions about the idea is whether the county should be responsible for its residents’ healthcare. Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone-who abstained from voting Tuesday, and was the only dissenting vote in March on whether to research the issue-said no, considering the current state of the county’s budget. “This year we have just covered our expenses with tax revenue,” he said. “I haven’t heard what to cut to allow for this.” The county’s deficit is expected to increase, he said, and so the responsibility is better left to the state and federal governments. The issue is being considered by the legislative and executive branches in Sacramento, but even healthcare legislation passed this year would take ample time to implement changes statewide.
Firestone argued that roughly 15 percent of the $1 million would go toward overhead, not helping the children. Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray, who also abstained, suggested that while healthcare for uninsured children was important, it might not be as high a priority as some other things, such as making sure hospitals meet mandated seismic requirements. “If there are no hospitals, we have a bigger problem than insurance,” she said.
Carbajal pointed out that hospital visits by uninsured children are more costly in the long run. The move would be a preventive measure resulting in considerable savings to the county because, if insurance were provided, children could maintain their health with regular trips to the doctor. “It’s very difficult not to reconcile or place this issue as high as other things. The health and public safety of our community is the most important part of our role,” Carbajal said. Centeno had similar feelings. “When I see little children standing there looking at me with a blank look on their face and their teeth in need of severe attention, I’m just not going to walk away from that,” he said.