Investing in the future Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

The statistics are staggering. Fifteen percent of California’s 9.4 million children are without health insurance.

One in three 6- to 17-year-olds is overweight. About 58 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend preschool. Sixty percent of second to 11th graders do not meet state goals for math and reading proficiency. Thirty percent of children live in an economically struggling family, able to pay for only the most basic needs. And a child dies in California before his or her first birthday every three hours.

These statistics released by the Children Now and Children’s Defense Fund — both dedicated to assuring all children thrive — raise multiple concerns for California employers. Without quick resolution to these issues, businesses will lack a well educated, healthy work force needed to compete in tomorrow’s marketplace. And California will be forced to cover higher costs of remedial health services, according to the Children Now report released last year.

Smart Business turned to Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., president and CEO of MemorialCare Medical Centers and chair of the California Hospital Association (CHA), for answers to these challenges. In addition, Dr. Arbuckle is the father of four children; and his early background and studies are in child psychology.

Just how serious is the situation?

There’s no question California faces a crisis in the health of our kids. Here’s one example. A recent report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research showed California’s children missing 1.9 million days of school due to asthma symptoms. Lack of adequate health insurance blocks access and timely medical care for children with asthma, causing them to suffer far more than they should.

Asthma is one of several chronic health problems for kids. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy reports that 28 of every 100 schoolchildren in California are overweight. And physicians are identifying heart disease in grade-schoolers.

There’s more: 27 percent of California’s 2-year-olds are not fully immunized, even though it is an effective preventive measure, protecting against diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

What is the future impact?

Looking at childhood obesity, researchers note that 75 percent of overweight children are expected to become overweight adults, translating into additional cases of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other chronic illness. Obesity in California costs the state an estimated $28 billion in direct medical expenses and lost productivity.

What are the causes?

Our MemorialCare Medical Centers’ pediatricians and child specialists identify many culprits. Diets of high-calorie foods, fast foods, baked goods and vending machine snacks are easier to access but deadly to your child’s health. While legislation and local action ban sales of soft drinks in many public schools, other offerings are often too high in fat or juices in vending machines that replace soft drinks too high in sugar. Inactivity is another culprit — the lack of exercise or any physical activity among children and teens.

Just because California grows lots of fruits and vegetables does not mean they are part of our children’s diet. Another study showed that teenage girls who devote much time to the Internet, get too little sleep or regularly drink alcohol are more likely to put on excess weight, with hours on the Internet taking time away from physical activity.

Are there legislative solutions?

With 6.8 million Californians uninsured and an additional 6.5 million underinsured, we need state health care reform now. Employers should contact elected officials and push for solutions to ensure children and adults have access to quality health services.

Employers should also press for further legislation that promotes healthy foods in school cafeterias and vending machines, expands exercise and physical activity programs, and ensures comprehensive school nurse services with programs that address children with chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and obesity as well as required health education courses.

What else can employers do to help?

Offer your work force information and support materials on how to ensure children embrace healthy lifestyles and access timely health care. Consider ‘adopting’ a school and encouraging workers to learn more about school nutrition and activity programs, advocating for healthier services. Contact local hospitals for help in education and prevention of childhood diseases. MemorialCare Medical Centers’ outreach programs address these issues and can help you access diagnostic and treatment services. Our Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach — the state’s largest children’s hospital and one of only eight certified children’s hospitals in California — is a leader in offering programs to prevent and combat disease in children and is eager to make a difference in the lives of California’s children.

BARRY ARBUCKLE, Ph.D., is president and CEO of MemorialCare Medical Centers (www.memorialcare.org) and chair of the California Hospital Association, which represents more than 450 hospitals statewide. Reach him at arbuckle@memorialcare.org or (562) 933-9708. MemorialCare Medical Centers include Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills and San Clemente, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach.