Uninsured Children: An Education Challenge

If there were millions of children in America whose families didn’t know they could enroll in school, we’d feel an urgent need to get the message out them, wouldn’t we? Well, that’s the situation with our nation’s health insurance program for children—five million children are eligible but they remain uninsured because of a lack of awareness.

This is an education problem on two levels. First, as I’ve suggested, we need to educate families about this option they have for health coverage. Second, if a child is not healthy, he or she cannot learn. There is nothing more important than ensuring that our nation’s children are safe and healthy.

I joined Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius last week to highlight the Connecting Kids to Coverage Challenge to enroll five million children in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) within five years. A phenomenal coalition of partners, ranging from state governors to national advocacy organizations, has stepped up to the challenge to enroll kids and educate families.

I want to thank my good friend Secretary Sebelius for her extraordinary leadership and unwavering commitment to ensure that everyone has access to excellent and affordable health care. Kathleen and her team have been phenomenal partners with the Department of Education on so many issues, from early learning programs to H1N1 flu. It is fair to say there has never been as much cooperation and collaboration among the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services as there is today.

We have also been working closely with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on improving USDA’s school lunch program and have had a major role in the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative—an effort that has ushered in an unprecedented wave of attention and action to tackle the issues around childhood obesity.

On the issue of health coverage for children, nearly all of the nation’s low-income, uninsured children are eligible through Medicaid or CHIP. Now, the challenge for all of us is to connect children with that coverage. America’s schools can help lead that effort.

Our job is to make sure everyone knows how to enroll. There is a role for every member of the school community, including superintendents, principals, teachers, school nurses, and lunch room staff to get involved.

In fact, recent federal legislation has made it possible to use the school lunch application to do more than refer families to health coverage. Under certain conditions, school lunch programs can share information from a student’s application with Medicaid and CHIP, speeding up the process of getting children covered.

As a former school superintendent, I would have loved to have had this type of efficient communication. I saw so many children who would have benefited tremendously from the simplicity this brings, and I know this will have a measurable effect on participation in these programs.

There is no better time than now to raise awareness about getting children enrolled in health care. As parents help their children get a new school year underway, staying healthy should be at the top of everyone’s school supply list.

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education