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Now is the time to improve the health of our nation’s children

Bill would create innovative solutions while keeping more kids healthy

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., attends a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on March 7.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., attends a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on March 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Across the U.S., a growing challenge to our children’s mental and physical well-being has been felt in every corner of our country — while countless children and youth are fulfilled and thriving physically and mentally, so many are struggling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over the last 10 years, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness — as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors — increased by about 40 percent among young people in this country.

In 2022, 8.8 percent of children lived in households experiencing food insecurity, and 1 in 5 children were at risk of hunger. Various federal and state programs are working to address these and other social and developmental needs so that all children can reach their full potential. Regrettably, these programs sometimes lack coordination, leading to missed opportunities for prevention and early intervention in the communities and places where children spend their time.

Thankfully, health systems like Nemours Children’s Health are working with federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in an effort to make a coordinated approach to children’s health care a reality. The bipartisan, bicameral Kickstarting Innovative Demonstrations Supporting Kids Health Act was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. This bill would establish a holistic approach to children’s health care by integrating mental and physical health services for children and youth who are eligible for both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

We are proud to work together on this bill with U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, as well as Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., and Dr. Michael Burgess, R-Texas. The KIDS Health Act will make it easier for children to get the coordinated and comprehensive mental and physical care they deserve.

How does this work? The KIDS Health Act would establish a cornerstone within the health system to enable work with community partners to address social drivers of health, such as lack of nutritious food and reliable access to transportation. This would be done through states being able to design financially sustainable models to enhance training for their health care workforce and improve health information technology systems to better facilitate data sharing, early intervention, and care coordination across sectors that serve children — the very approaches that have better served children and youth in Delaware.

States participating in this model would have the flexibility to decide how to improve the care of kids in their communities based on their unique needs. By integrating primary and mental health care programs within school-based settings, for example, we can promote equitable access to care by meeting kids where they are and playing a vital role in early detection. Also, parents would not be required to miss work due to traveling to the doctor’s office, and students wouldn’t have to miss valuable class time.

We are already seeing how coordinated physical and mental health care is greatly improving the lives of children in our home state of Delaware. For example, in one case, a student was recently prescribed medication to treat his anxiety, but he refused to take the medication. A trusted care coordinator in a primary care practice learned that the student’s family faced challenges putting food on the table.

Unfortunately, the medication was an appetite stimulant, and the family wasn’t able to meet the nutritional needs of the child. The care coordinator connected the family to a food bank in order to meet their immediate needs, and the food bank also connected the family to additional resources. The young patient was ultimately able to take his medication and begin the journey to healing. 

In another example, a student was struggling in school. Through an innovative data-sharing partnership between Delaware schools, health systems and participating families, a pediatric health system received an alert that the student had missed more than 10 days of school. A care coordinator investigated the situation and uncovered bullying as the main reason for so many missed days. The care coordinator went on to work with the school and the child’s family to address the issue. Soon after, the child felt comfortable returning to school.

The KIDS Health Act is about going well beyond medicine to build a stronger health system that supports healthy children. Healthy children grow into healthy adults who create a thriving economy, a capable military, and a brighter future for our nation.

We know that the foundation for adult health and well-being is built during childhood. As a nation, we have an opportunity to invest in whole child health models that focus on keeping children healthy, rather than managing their care once they are sick.

The KIDS Health Act gives states the resources to identify challenges and create innovative solutions while keeping more kids healthy and thriving.

We urge Congress to pass the KIDS Health Act to help our nation’s children live healthier, more fulfilled lives, and strengthen our great nation for generations to come.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Kara Odom Walker is executive vice president and chief population health officer at Nemours Children’s Health.

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