La Plata County children lack health-care help

Study shows how kids have fared during recession

Dr. Pakhi Chaudhuri shows Lyn O’Brien the growth, weight and head circumference development of her 15-month-old twins Joseph Clancy O’Brien and Molly Shannon O’Brien, right, two of the fortunate patients at Pediatric Associates of Durango that are insured. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Herald

Dr. Pakhi Chaudhuri shows Lyn O’Brien the growth, weight and head circumference development of her 15-month-old twins Joseph Clancy O’Brien and Molly Shannon O’Brien, right, two of the fortunate patients at Pediatric Associates of Durango that are insured.

DENVER – It’s a tumultuous time to be born in La Plata County.

Newborns in the county today already have experienced more risks to their health than babies in Colorado as a whole, like mothers who are slightly more likely to smoke and less likely to get early prenatal care.

And fewer kids in the Four Corners have health insurance than the state average.

But La Plata kids are also less likely to live in poverty than their Colorado peers, and when they go to school, they all will attend full-day kindergarten, their tests scores are higher than the state average, and they are a little more likely to graduate high school.

The numbers come from the annual Kids Count report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which was released Thursday.

The report compiles a variety of data – most of it from 2009 – to paint a bleak portrait of the youngest generation of Coloradans.

Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney hailed it as one of the first in-depth looks at the toll the Great Recession has taken on Colorado kids.

“While economists proclaimed the end of the Great Recession more than a year ago, the end was nowhere in sight for many Colorado families, and especially our children,” Watney said.

An additional 30,000 Colorado children fell into extreme poverty between 2008 and 2009, defined as an $11,000 income for a family of four, Watney said. While Colorado’s child poverty rate is still below the national average, it doubled in the last decade, the fastest rise of any state.

An estimated 18,000 public school students don’t have a permanent home. In La Plata County public schools, 68 students were homeless, according to the report.

At the same time, the state saw a dramatic rise in childhood obesity, from 22 percent in 2003 to 27 percent in 2007. Colorado started the decade ranked second in the country for kids with healthy weights. It has slipped to 10th.

“To go from second-best to 10th best in such a short window is something that no Coloradan should accept,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Poverty can be a cause of obesity, because poor kids often lack affordable healthful food and safe places to play outside.

One ironic effect of the recession is that more Colorado children got health insurance.

As estimated 42,000 kids gained insurance last year, either because their family incomes fell and they qualified for government programs or because of expansions of federal and state government insurance.

The Legislature in 2009 passed a fee on hospitals that is used to add children to state insurance programs.

But rural areas have missed out on the rise in insured kids.

Children in the urban corridor around Interstate 25 had the highest rates of insurance. In the five counties of Southwest Colorado, 16.2 percent of children have no health insurance, compared to the statewide average of just one in 10.

Watney credited a dramatic rise in urban and suburban poverty and the response of metro-area counties with the increase in insurance rolls on the Front Range.

Despite their lower insurance rates, La Plata County’s children have a lot going for them.

Even though pregnant women in the county are slightly more likely to smoke and less likely to seek early prenatal care, La Plata had fewer low-birth-weight babies and fewer women who gained too little weight during their pregnancies.

The teen birth rate of 15.9 per 1,000 girls was four points better than the state average. And just one in seven La Plata babies are born to women with less than a high school education, compared to almost one in five statewide.

Nearly three out of four La Plata students graduate high school, slightly higher than the statewide rate. However, big gaps exist across the state on all measures of educational success between middle class and poor students and between white or Asian students and other races.

Too many high school graduates need remedial education when they enter college, said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. Educators can now track those students back to elementary school and predict that students who have fallen behind in third grade will still be behind by the time they reach college, he said.

“We need to make sure that our kids, by the time they leave third grade, can read. It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s something that we all need to work together on,” Garcia said.

However, Hickenlooper and Garcia are overseeing a state government with problems of its own, and Hickenlooper has proposed $500-per-student cuts to the budget for public schools.

jhanel@durango herald.com

Registered Nurse Nancy Farrar measures the head circumference of a 15-month-old insured child, Molly Shannon O’Brien, during a wellness check at Pediatric Associates of Durango. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Herald

Registered Nurse Nancy Farrar measures the head circumference of a 15-month-old insured child, Molly Shannon O’Brien, during a wellness check at Pediatric Associates of Durango.

“My baby,” said 22-month-old Jaelyn Alston as her parents, Maria Rivera, left, and Justin Alston, introduce her to her 1-day-old brother Justin Alston at Mercy Regional Medical Center’s birthing center in Durango. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Herald

“My baby,” said 22-month-old Jaelyn Alston as her parents, Maria Rivera, left, and Justin Alston, introduce her to her 1-day-old brother Justin Alston at Mercy Regional Medical Center’s birthing center in Durango.