The Clinton administration dispatched two top officials to Maryland yesterday to tout its health care reform package, each promising the plan would improve the health of the nation's children by covering preventive care.
Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, toured the lead poisoning prevention clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which currently treats 800 children who have high levels of lead in their blood.
She said the reform package, which goes before Congress next year, would widen the use of blood-lead screenings by mandating insurance coverage. Such screenings are seen as essential to catching lead problems before they reach toxic levels capable of causing serious injury, such as learning disabilities and brain damage.
"All children will have access to testing for lead," Ms. Browner said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno swept through Carroll County, visiting the county health department and Mount Airy elementary and middle schools. She, too, stressed the importance of preventive care for children.
As a prosecutor in Florida, Ms. Reno said, she became convinced that much violence can be traced to inadequate early childhood care.
"You look at a child born without prenatal care, and you see a kid headed for trouble."
In Baltimore, Ms. Browner visited with LaVerna Hughes and her 2-year-old son, Ryan Merrick, who was admitted to the institute for 28 days last summer after a routine screening found that he carried a dangerously high level of lead in his blood.
The boy had displayed no symptoms, but doctors said he could suffer permanent disabilities if the level rose higher.
Treatment reduced Ryan's lead level by more than half. While he was in the hospital, his mother had flaking paint removed and repainted her apartment.
An estimated 15 percent of U.S. children under 6 have high levels of lead in their blood.
In Maryland, state law requires that insurers cover lead screenings as well as treatments for children who have been poisoned. Dr. Gary Goldstein, president of the institute, said public health authorities have yet to find a good way to inform parents and pediatricians about the need to test children.
"You want to catch [the problem] before they have any symptoms," he said. "You have to pick it up in the child who is looking perfectly normal."
The institute is also trying to find the best way to remove lead hazards from the houses where children live. In one study, the institute is supervising the repair of 75 older dwellings in Baltimore to see which of three methods is most cost-effective.
Yesterday the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an award of $6 million to Maryland to reduce lead hazards in 600 apartments. Trudy McFall, director of the state's Community Development Administration, said the money will be spent throughout the state.