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Bill that would curb asthma attacks in schools struggles for air in budget debate

April 23, 2009 – Five days a week Dr. Anna Bunploog steps aboard a mobile home designed to function as a pediatric clinic. The interior of the massive white vehicle is plastered with colorful prescription drug posters, memorable hints about respiratory health and a basket of breathing devices, spacers.

Most days the van travels to neighborhoods with high poverty rates where asthmatic children often have respiratory attacks spurred by things like polluting factories, busy expressways and idling school busses.

On a typical morning, Bunploog, nurse Marcia Smith and driver Rodger Peck park the unit outside of a school. Children have to be accompanied by a parent in order to see the doctor.

There are more than 100,000 asthmatic children in Chicagoland. Bunploog says she sees about 200 patients per month

Since 1999, Chicago’s Mobile CARE Foundation has screened more than 45,000 kids for asthma, according to Stephen Samuelson, the program’s executive director.

If all three of Mobile CARE’s vans were operating this year, the program could treat an estimated 3,900 kids in 62 private and parochial schools, Samuelson said.

Legislation (S.B. 1496) introduced by Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) would give money to this asthma program for five years through the Illinois Health Department. But differences in legislative priorities combined with an economic downturn has made her bill difficult to move through the statehouse.

The bill would provide funding for “initial respiratory health screenings; diagnosis and follow-up medical care from pediatricians specializing in asthma management; bilingual, individualized family education sessions; in-home asthma trigger assessments.”

Hunter said she didn’t know what the program would cost taxpayers each year, but she said, “The human cost [of asthma] is astronomical.”

Maureen Damitz, executive director of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization affiliated with the mobile health unit’s staff, said the mobile program has been funded through private donations and currently does not receive government money.

She said, like most non-profit organizations, the current economic downturn posed funding challenges for Mobile CARE, but that fundraisers and private donations would keep the two mobile units operating.

A similar program in Philadelphia cost about $200,000 per mobile unit. Based on that conservative estimate, which only accounted for personnel, a grant funding three vans for five years would cost Illinois $6 million.

Hunter and Damitz said they want the legislature to find money for the mobile asthma program this year. Both said if asthmatic children weren’t treated through appointments during school hours on Mobile CARE, then some would go to emergency rooms for treatment and the cost to taxpayers would be higher.

Hunter’s bill said minority children had difficulty accessing primary care because of socioeconomic disparities. According to a 2008 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, African-American children were hospitalized at a rate four to five times higher than white children.

Hunter said asthmatic children in her district would have their respiratory health improved if her legislation became law.

Allowing families to access primary care physicians like Anna Bunploog is part of a long-term solution for cutting back on asthma attacks, Damitz said.

Improving indoor and outdoor air quality would decrease asthma attacks for children, Bunploog said, adding that if asthmatic children were treated properly then they would have longer and more active lives.

“I think it’s sad when we say kids are going to have a short life, and that’s just the way it is,” she said.

The bill is currently in the assignments committee.

Hunter said that her legislation would cut back on money spent at emergency rooms, but she said many of her colleagues didn’t see it the same way.

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