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Business Implored To Ensure Health Care for Children

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WASHINGTON--Businesses should do more to ensure that their employees and their children have access to high-quality health care, including preventive services, business leaders and health experts agreed last week.

The 250 participants here at the first "Corporate Summit for Children,'' which was sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, and the Washington Business Group on Health, generally agreed that there should be fundamental changes to the nation's health-care system.

Ensuring that all children, and particularly the estimated 10 million children who lack insurance, have access to health care is a moral imperative, some said. And spending money on preventive services, such as immunizations and prenatal care, will pare corporate health expenses in the long run, they said.

"We're asking, we're imploring businesses to promote the health of children first,'' said Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida, the chairman of the infant-mortality commission. "We are asking them to do it because it is right and because it saves money.''

A study released at the conference estimates that American businesses will spend more than $4 billion this year on medical care for women and children who lack health insurance or who are Medicaid recipients. (See related story below.)

$1-Million Babies

Many conference participants said that the primary responsibility of businesses in this area is to ensure that their employees and their children have health insurance. Over the past decade, rising health-insurance premiums have forced many companies to drop health-insurance coverage for workers and their dependents, they said.

Most of the uninsured children in this country live in homes where at least one parent works full time, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates. A study released by the Children's Defense Fund earlier this year found that almost 40 percent of all children under the age of 18 are not covered by health insurance through a parent's employer, compared with the 72.8 percent of such children who were covered in 1977. (See Education Week, Jan. 15, 1992.)

Most of the companies represented at the conference said they were attempting to make their firms more responsive to the health-care needs of children and families.

Many of the business people here--a group that included a large share of benefits and personnel managers at both large and small firms--said they were able to convince their superiors that preventive services, and especially prenatal services, were cost-effective.

"It doesn't take too many $1-million babies to get the attention of corporate America,'' said Dr. Mary Jane England, the president of the Washington Business Group on Health.

At Levi Strauss & Company, for example, a new benefits plan that included well-baby care was offered to employees after the company realized that 13 percent of the babies born to its employees were born prematurely--and accounted for 45 percent of the company's maternity costs.

For the past year, said Elizabeth A. Cronin, the manager of the company's health and welfare plans, pregnant employees in their first trimester have been given $100 if they call a special hotline and speak confidentially to a nurse about their health status. At-risk women are then provided case-managed care.

"Quite frankly, I was amazed at how little knowledge many of our employees had about their health and the health of their child,'' she said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, meanwhile, offers parenting seminars and also provides telephone pagers to expectant fathers. It also allows female employees at several worksites to collect and store their breast milk for future infant feedings.

'Take a Stand'

Corporations, those at the summit said, can do more to improve maternal and child health.

"I think it is time for all of us to take a stand,'' said Ralph Larsen, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Johnson & Johnson.

In three different work sessions, participants developed a series of recommendations for companies to follow. These included:

  • Develop partnerships with community-based groups.
  • Work with health experts and educators to develop a legislative agenda to improve access to health care at the federal, state, and local levels.
  • Ensure that company benefits include preventive services, including well-baby care and immunizations.
  • Train employees to become savvy health-care consumers, and to seek out preventive care.
  • Educate workers about health-policy issues and encourage them to become politically active in this area.
  • Require suppliers to adopt "family friendly'' policies.

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