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Good Call for New Parents

March 17, 2004

Once upon a time, brand-new parents got by with the help that a wise grandparent could offer: tips for soothing a colicky infant, a steady hand at baby's first bath, a cheerleader when breast-feeding went poorly. Now, according to a new survey, what many moms and dads in Los Angeles County worry most about is whether they can afford a doctor for their child.

First 5 LA Connect, a call-in line and website for county parents, has operated for about a year. It offers help and referrals to pregnant women and parents of children up to age 5. Staffers are available 14 hours a day, seven days a week. They speak English, Spanish and dozens of other languages.

The help line is one of several initiatives funded by the local Proposition 10 commission. Voters passed Proposition 10 in 1998, raising the tax on tobacco products to pay for programs to improve the health, education and well-being of children. The help line is a modest effort -- $12 million over three years -- compared with the $600 million the local commission will spend, starting this fall, to make preschool available to all Los Angeles County children. A modest effort, yes, but critical to thousands of new families.

Last week, members of First 5 LA -- as the county's Proposition 10 group calls itself -- heard results from an independent evaluation of the call-in operation. Certainly, many of its 32,000 parent callers had questions about measles shots, potty training or childproofing their homes. But here's the headline from the first review: A whopping 65% of callers sought leads on health insurance for their kids. Though more evidence is hardly needed, this is another sign of the depth of the nation's healthcare crisis.

The commissioners expected most callers to be uninsured, so staffers were trained to begin the process of enrolling children who were eligible for free or low-cost healthcare programs. With their help, nearly 9,000 poor youngsters now have health insurance via Medi-Cal; Healthy Families, a state program for the working poor; or Healthy Kids, another First 5 LA program, offering low-cost coverage to those whose parents earn slightly more. This means these thousands now will get antibiotics for ear infections before hearing is damaged. It means polio vaccines, asthma drugs and casts for broken bones.

Los Angeles County has an estimated 400,000 uninsured youngsters. First 5 LA's call line has given a few of them a leg up because healthier kids do better in school and become more productive adults. But a broader solution awaits consensus among lawmakers and voters that healthcare is a fundamental right.

To Take Action: For parenting questions, call (888) FIRST5LA [(888) 347-7855] or log onto www.first5laconnect.org.

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