Thursday, June 14, 2001

Felix investigators
shouldn’t fix blame

The issue: A legislative committee
has been assigned to investigate costs
of education for disabled children.

SKYROCKETING costs of education for disabled children have become a national concern and the state Legislature has authorized a joint Senate-House committee to examine how dollars are spent in Hawaii.

The committee hopes to improve public understanding of the obligations that require these expenditures and how the costs can be made manageable.

A class-action lawsuit accusing the state of failing to meet federal standards of education for the disabled led to a consent degree in which the state agreed to comply with the law. As a result, "special" education for the disabled next year will cost $213 million, about 23 percent of the state's educational budget. Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu says that compares with a national percentage of 28 percent to 30 percent going to special education.

The Hawaii lawsuit, filed in 1993 by the mother of Jennifer Felix, holds the state accountable for the education of 11,000 students needing mental-health services. Until now, those services have been provided by the Department of Health. Beginning July 1, services for 7,000 of those students -- those with less severe disabilities -- will be transferred to the Department of Education. An additional 12,000 disabled students not needing mental-health services are also protected by the federal law.

The legislative committee's investigation will be focused on costs of complying with the Felix decree. It would be more worthwhile if it encompassed compliance with the federal law under which the suit was filed so it could examine the entire special-education program.

Legitimate questions have been raised about whether teachers or parents have had children classified as disabled so they can receive more attention. In Hawaii's school system, 12.2 percent of the children are designated as disabled, compared with a national average of only 8.2 percent. Attorneys and school officials insist that such designation complies with federal standards.

Much of the problem is the failure of the federal government to provide anywhere near the 40 percent of the cost of special education that it promised. That frustration -- and displeasure with President Bush's refusal to support large increases in funding -- was a major factor in the departure of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party, giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. In recent weeks, the Senate has moved toward increased funding for special education.

Public concern about the cost of special-education is greater here than in other states because of Hawaii's state-wide school system and the consequent state-wide scope of the Felix lawsuit.

The legislative committee's investigation will be worthwhile if it illuminates this legitimate public obligation and is not sidetracked into an attempt to affix blame.

Ruling gives women equal
health-care coverage

The issue: A federal judge has ruled
that employers must include birth-control
prescriptions in medical insurance plans.

A federal judge's ruling that a Seattle-based pharmacy chain must provide for prescription contraceptives in its employee medical insurance plan rectifies a discriminatory element against women in health care coverage.

Although the ruling is binding only in Western Washington, it was the first of its kind in a federal court and is likely to influence courts in other jurisdictions. It is the right step in achieving gender equity in health care plans.

The judge found that Bartell Drug Co. had discriminated against female employees by not providing birth control, which he called a "fundamental and immediate" medical need, when it covers a range of other products and services designed to prevent illness or promote general well-being, such as impotence drugs for men.

The ruling conforms to a Equal Employment Opportunity Commission judgment last year that excluding prescription contraceptives amounts to discrimination. The EEOC contended that pregnancy is a "medical condition" and argued that if more severe measures, such as surgical sterilization and abortion, are covered by health plans, so should contraception.

Birth-control coverage has been opposed by employers, who say it will increase the cost of health insurance, but that will likely be minimal. A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, found that the average cost of additional coverage to a health plan would be $1.43 per employee per month. That is much less than the $5 that 80 percent of privately insured adults say they would support, according a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Religious organizations that oppose birth control may take comfort in that contraception nullifies the more onerous practice of abortion, which a government report shows have decreased by a third among teen-agers and adults between 1990 and 1997.

Although several states, including Hawaii, have laws requiring contraceptives coverage, Congress since 1997 has stalled on a bill that would provide it nationwide and should move on it. Congress should also rebuff the Bush administration's decision to cut from its proposed budget money to fund birth-control coverage, which has been part of federal employees' health plan since 1999.

Birth-control coverage should not be debated on religious or moral grounds. The issue is about equality for women. If health plans pay for Viagra for men, they should pay for birth control for women.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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