Hawaii prides itself on its devotion to the health care of children and elders in particular, even though we fall short on key indicators from time to time.

As Civil Beat reported last week, only one-fourth of 1- and 2-year-olds get tested for lead poisoning, a statistic that a state toxicologist calls “abysmal.”

The state’s lead prevention program, housed within the state Department of Health, was inactive for well over a decade until federal funding gave it new life beginning three years ago. But that financial spigot dries up later this year.

To address the first challenge, the Hawaii Legislature should advance Senate Bill 2637, which would require kids to be screened by the DOH between 9 and 12 months old and again at 2 years of age. Health insurers would also be required to provide coverage for testing.

As the sponsors of SB 2637 correctly recognize, lead poisoning can cause “permanent health damage, including intellectual disabilities, learning and behavior problems, high blood pressure, damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys, and red blood cells, as well as coma and death in severe cases.”

Chair Donovan Delacruz Chair Ways and Means committee chats with Vice Chair Sen Gilbert Keith Agaran in room 211 today.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, confers with WAM Vice Chair Gil Keith-Agaran at a hearing at the Capitol in 2018. A bill requiring lead detection tests in the blood of 1-and-2-year-old kids needs to be heard by WAM this week.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in stating that early intervention programs are the way to go, given the proclivity of children to touch all sorts of objects and put them in their mouths.

Our immediate concern is that SB 2637 must be heard early this week in Donovan Dela Cruz’s Senate Ways and Means Committee or risk missing a Friday deadline for all measures to advance.

Hopefully, Dela Cruz’s colleagues will urge him to do just that. They include several WAM members who have signed their name to support the legislation, including Vice Chair Gil Keith-Agaran, the lead sponsor.

No one has testified in opposition to SB 2637 while groups that understand the issue intimately and that testified in support include Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks, Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii and Early Childhood Action Strategy.

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It’s not just keiki that are at risk. Kari Wheeling, clinical services director of the Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii, said in her testimony that lead is “a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.”

But she also pointed out that lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage.

“Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight,” she stated.

Concerning the second challenge — the expiration of a $362,000, three-year federal grant to the Hawaii Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in September — state health officials should be trying to apply for new aid or to compensate for the needed funds locally.

In its own testimony supporting the intent of the SB 2637, the DOH said federal funding beyond the fall is uncertain. The DOH noted that the state legislation does not specify any appropriations and explained that the department “does not have the long-term staff or funding resources for a statewide childhood lead poisoning prevention program.”

Where insurers stand is unclear. None testified on SB 2637.

But a bill with no money or no expectation of federal support would be an empty gesture. Let’s do more to protect our children.

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