Pediatrician asks Rhode Island to cover all children

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many inequities in our state, one of which is access to health care. I experienced this firsthand as a pediatrician who practiced in Rhode Island for 20 years. I have worked exclusively in Rhode Island’s central cities – in the underserved communities of Woonsocket and Central Falls – the communities with the highest rates of child poverty in the state.

After working in community health centers in these communities for many years, in February 2020, I opened a private practice for children, specifically to provide a medical home and free medical care to children in Central Falls, Illinois. one of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

My practice offers free child care because caring for only half the children in a family is unacceptable. I cannot simply care for children who are born in the United States, while others who live in the shadow of our society do not receive care because of their immigration status. I couldn’t argue that asking families to pay even a little extra $20 per visit was fair, because it could make the difference between whether the family went to eat that day or not.

When we send children to public school, we don’t send some for free and we don’t charge others. When we feed children at school, we are not saying that it is free or at a reduced price for some low-income children, but that other low-income children should pay. Health care should be no different.

I have personally seen the impact of children with delayed treatment of a ruptured appendix and severe untreated asthma because families tried to avoid medical bills. I saw a paralyzed child being hospitalized for four months because the family could not afford the necessary preventive and specialized treatment and instead incurred thousands of dollars in medical debt. I’ve seen suicidal teenagers go untreated. I was deeply devastated when a teenager I knew committed suicide a year after graduating from high school.

If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us that we are all one community and one person’s health impacts the health of all. The children go to school together. They play together. They eat together, regardless of their insurance status.

Rhode Island previously offered access to health coverage for undocumented children until 2008, when funding was cut. Let’s do the right thing and get Cover All Kids to do it this session, starting with including it in the Governor’s 2023 budget. It’s time to restore health coverage for Rhode Island children, regardless of immigration status, so they can be healthy and successful in school and in life.

Dr Beata Nelken is a pediatrician in Central Falls, RI

About Raymond A. Bentley

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