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Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, January 28, 2022

Bay Area Counties to Provide Health Coverage For All Children

Using the Tobacco Tax and Other Funds, the Plan will Offer Medical, Dental and Vision Services to the Uninsured

By Matea Gold

Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Health officials from four Bay Area counties Monday announced a $59-million expansion of health insurance for children, an effort that proponents say will provide universal health care for all young people in the area to age 18.

The Healthy Kids Initiative, funded partially by the Proposition 10 tobacco tax, will provide comprehensive medical, dental and vision services for the area's 31,000 uninsured children who do not qualify for the Medi-Cal or Healthy Families programs. The initiative will also cover children who are undocumented immigrants.

"This is just a gigantic step forward," said Robert Sillen, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Health & Hospital System. The four-county program is the latest initiative by independent county panels charged with distributing the $600 million the state collects annually from the 50-cent-per-pack tobacco tax that voters approved in 1998. The money is used to fund health and education programs for children to age 5. In past years, counties have distributed millions of dollars to child care programs, literacy efforts and prenatal classes.

But recently, leaders of the initiative have attempted to consolidate the money to accomplish more ambitious goals. Last summer, officials in Los Angeles announced two $100-million efforts to provide universal preschool and universal health care to children to age 5. Filmmaker and children's advocate Rob Reiner, who spearheaded the passage of Proposition 10, said providing children with health care decreases future health costs and reduces absenteeism in schools.

"What we're talking about today is giving these children a huge leg up in terms of succeeding in life," said Reiner, who joined health officials in a news conference at San Francisco General Hospital to kick off the new initiative. Reiner, a major Democratic Party donor, said the efforts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area demonstrate the potential for providing universal health care nationwide.

"If you think about the money that President Bush is putting forth in his tax policy" -- $670 billion in tax cuts -- "for less than a third of that he can insure every single child in America," Reiner said during an interview Monday morning on a crowded flight from Los Angeles to Oakland. "It's just a question of setting priorities," he said. "Is it important to us to have rich people get a tax cut ... or is it important for every child to have health insurance?"

In recent weeks, several leading Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, have charged that the Bush administration has failed to deal with the country's health care crisis. White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Bush has done much to make health care more accessible, citing the president's efforts to get Congress to curb medical liability as a way to cut health care costs. Bush will also offer new health care proposals during tonight's State of the Union address, he said. In the Bay Area, San Mateo and Solano counties are joining efforts in San Francisco and Santa Clara that combine Proposition 10 money with additional funding from 60 private foundations, county health departments and community organizations to expand universal health insurance through age 18. The funding is for the next two to three years.

"Every kid in California, every kid in America, should have the opportunity for the greatest possible health care," said San Mateo County Supervisor Michael Nevin. Under the programs, children whose families make $54,300, or 300% of the federal poverty level, will qualify for health coverage. (San Mateo County also is providing care for children whose families earn up to $72,400, or 400% the poverty level.) For a monthly premium of $4 to $18, families can get full health coverage for their children. "All it takes is to sit down next to a child who has a toothache and doesn't want to play ... and you know that a child without health insurance, without access, is one too many," said Lisa Luke Lee, an early child educator and a member of Santa Clara's Proposition 10 commission.