Staff from Learning Stones, a child-care center in Tarboro, came to the legislature to advocate for funding child care.
Staff from Learning Stones, a child-care center in Tarboro, came to the legislature to advocate for funding child care. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Child and family advocacy day at the state General Assembly brought advocates from near and far to raise concerns about proposed legislation.

By Hyun Namkoong

Advocates for children and youth made the General Assembly their playground Tuesday, as they walked the hallways asking lawmakers to remember the health of children and families in this year’s legislative session.

Members of Prevention Partners, Autism Speaks and the North Carolina Alliance for Health were among the groups that brought their concerns to Jones Street about proposed reductions in child-care subsidies, improving insurance coverage for autistic children, cuts to youth tobacco-cessation programs and access to healthy food.

Both adults and teens crowded into lawmakers’ offices, handed out literature and held press conferences or rallied in front of the building to raise visibility for their causes.

Child-care subsidy eligibility

Shirley Hill and other child-care workers from Tarboro came up to Raleigh to talk to lawmakers about how the proposed changes to child-care subsidy eligibility would affect the children they work with.

Both the Senate and House budget proposals call for changes to family eligibility criteria for the subsidies.

Currently, working families are eligible for the subsidy if they earn no more than 75 percent of the state median income ($48,737 for a family of four).

But the Senate budget proposed changing those criteria to 200 percent of the federal poverty level for families with preschoolers ($47,700 for a family of four) and 133 percent of the federal poverty level for those with school-aged children ($31,721 for a family of four).

The House budget, which was unveiled Tuesday, kept the new eligibility levels.

Staff from Learning Stones, a child-care center in Tarboro, came to the legislature to advocate for funding child care. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

An estimated 12,000 fewer children would be eligible to receive services based on the proposed changes from the Senate and House budgets, but an additional 2,100 would be added to the rolls in the changes. In addition, the House budget allows for increased reimbursement to child-care centers, many of which have not seen a rate increase since 2007.

“It’s hard to determine exactly how many children will be affected,” said Deborah Landry, an analyst from the legislative Fiscal Research Division.

Fifteen children who attend Learning Stones, the child-care center in Tarboro where Hill works, would be affected by the proposed changes to eligibility criteria.

“These kids need care, and a lot of children won’t get served,” Hill said.

She said they were “leaving hopeful and positive” about the eligibility criteria after meeting with lawmakers.

Insurance coverage for autism treatment

In front of the legislative building, autism-awareness advocates set up a wheel of fortune with the names of states around the perimeter to demonstrate how access to therapy for autism is randomly determined by the state a child is born in.

Thirty-seven states, including Virginia and South Carolina, provide the kind of autism insurance coverage proposed in HB 498, which would expand coverage for physician-prescribed treatment of autism disorders in the state.

“Right now in North Carolina, there is no guarantee that your child with autism will have medical treatment covered by their insurers,” said Kate Johnson, a legislative aide with the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Autism is a developmental disorder that negatively impacts a person’s ability to communicate and socialize with others. Much remains unknown about what causes autism, and a cure has yet to be identified.

One in 58 children in the state will be diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, the rate of autism in North Carolina is higher than the national average.

Darryl Marsh shared his personal experiences of having a child with autism and the importance of passing HB 498.

Darryl Marsh talked about how his 16-year-old son with autism was helped by therapy at a rally across the street from the legislative building Tuesday. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“[My son] was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 and a half years old,” said Marsh, senior vice president and general counsel at Krispy Kreme Donuts.

Through daily therapy with applied behavior analysis, Marsh’s 15-year-old son, Harrison, was able to gain life skills such as being able to dress alone.

“I am so lucky, because my great job has allowed me to pay for autism therapy out of pocket,” Marsh said. “The cost was between $35,000 and $45,000 a year for therapy.”

Marsh pointed out that the cost of therapy can be prohibitively expensive for most parents who have children with autism.

“[Parents] can’t afford that, and their children’s autism can go untreated,” he said.

Without treatment, children can have a difficult time developing basic life skills such as socializing with others.

“He was the kid who used to stand by himself on the playground. But after ABA therapy targeting socialization, he’s now the most popular kid in school,” Marsh said.

Marsh’s son has yet to speak, but he uses sign language and an iPod to communicate with his teachers and classmates.

“As someone from the corporate world, I want to give you a business perspective of what can happen when autism goes untreated,” Marsh said.

He cited results of a 2007 Harvard study that found that untreated autism can have a societal cost of $3.2 million during an individual’s lifetime.

HB 498 has passed in the House and is waiting to be introduced to the Senate.

“It would be great if it passed, but you never know,” Johnson said with a laugh. “The budget is tight, and we know that. But this has no cost to taxpayers in North Carolina at all.”

The proposed bill would charge each insurer payer an additional 31 cents per month.

“Do the math,” Marsh said. “We simply cannot afford to not pass this legislation. From all perspectives – kids, parents and businesses – passing HB 498 is the right thing to do.”

Greening up food deserts

Staff and interns from Prevention Partners, the N.C. Alliance for Health and Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) teamed up to raise awareness on the importance of improving healthy-food access in food deserts across the state.

Click to go to an interactive map of food deserts and farmers’ markets in North Carolina.

Food deserts are areas where people are unable to buy healthy food at an affordable price within five miles. A bill raised last year led to the creation of the House Committee on Food Desert Zones, which met through the legislative interim this winter and spring.

“There’s too many young people right here in the state who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Melva Fager Okun of Prevention Partners.

For weeks, members of the N.C. Alliance for Health have been distributing postcards to lawmakers and lobbyists with images of closed supermarkets in the neighborhoods of middle-schoolers who are involved in improving access to healthy food.

Preventing tobacco use in kids

Fager Okun and a team of Prevention Partners interns met with Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Raleigh) to discuss recent cuts to tobacco-cessation and -prevention programs targeted to youth.

Prevention Partners is the group that helped all of the state’s hospitals and school districts go tobacco free over the past decade and is now focusing on preventing obesity for both children and adults.

“Just a few years ago, the state was spending as much as $17 million to help youth not take up smoking,” Fager Okun said to Holley. “And we’re down to just $1 million.”

According to 2012 Department of Health and Human Services statistics, youth cigarette smoking in the state had reached historic lows of 4.2 percent and 15.5 percent of middle- and high-schoolers, respectively.

Since 2003, the middle school smoking rate in North Carolina has dropped by 55 percent, and high school smoking has seen a decline of 43 percent.

DHHS officials attributed the success of lowering youth cigarette smoking to the Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered. prevention program, which was defunded in the 2012 budget. The T.R.U. program consists of a media campaign and community and school programs.

According to the CDC, 90 percent of smokers have their first cigarette by age 18. An estimated 10 percent of youth aged 12 to 17 years old smoke in North Carolina.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.