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Our children's needs

The health and welfare of Florida's children is not a hotly debated topic in this year's gubernatorial race. Crime and welfare are the hot-button issues. But when children's issues do come up, there's no comparison between the strong initiatives advanced by Gov. Lawton Chiles and the indifference of his Republican opponent, Jeb Bush.

In fact, Bush rarely brings up the issue of how we can best assure a healthy, productive future for Florida's children _ unless, that is, he's discussing the future of children whose mothers are on welfare. Then he talks about welfare mothers finding husbands and getting off welfare.

Chiles, on the other hand, speaks passionately about what he's done to ensure a quality life for Florida's children. Bush opposes prevention programs and calls Chiles' programs "welfare." During a recent luncheon meeting at a coalition of women's groups in Tallahassee, Chiles stole the show from Jeb Bush on this issue.

"I heard Jeb say he sees Florida's future through the eyes of his children," Chiles said. "That's good. I see Florida's future through the eyes of all of our children."

Chiles initiated a Healthy Start program directed toward improving the health of pregnant women and their babies. Its ripple effect has helped to reduce some longstanding medical problems for Florida's infants. This program expanded Medicaid coverage to pregnant women with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, as well as children under age 1 whose family income was at or below 185 percent of the poverty level.

As a result, some 250,000 pregnant women have been screened for health risks, thus helping to reduce the state's infant mortality rate. In 1990, the infant mortality rate was 9.5 per thousand live births. This year, it is 8.1.

The Healthy Start Program also increased the payments for obstetricians under Medicaid, making more obstetricians available to care for pregnant women. Under the same program, high-risk mothers, suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure or other ailments, were identified through a screening program and offered a variety of treatment services.

Before Healthy Start, for example, high-risk mothers living in Naples had to travel to Tampa General Hospital for treatment. Under the expanded program, a team of doctors travels to the Naples area and provides services there and to pregnant mothers in surrounding areas.

According to Dr. Charles Mahan, state health officer for Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services, this reduced by 90 percent the number of mothers who had to be put in the hospital.

The sincerity with which Chiles has worked to improve conditions for children can also be seen in reforms in Florida's child welfare laws and his administration's efforts to correct problems in the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Chiles signed a bill this year that creates, among other things, a single case plan for every child who enters the system; a flexible plan that allows more adolescents to be placed in independent living programs; and court approved placement of a child with an adult non-relative.

In this election, the voters have a clear choice _ a governor who already has done much to improve the lives of Florida's neediest children or a challenger who rarely mentions the issue.