“More than any other organization I know,” said William Allen, who teaches courses on community organizing and advocacy by the nonprofit sector at Brown University, Providence College and Boston College, “Rhode Island Kids Count has an enormous amount of partnerships and collaborations to drive an agenda that’s based on sound public policy for kids.”
At the heart of the organization is Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director. At a time when policy divisions around ideology are becoming the norm, Bryant has been able to fashion broad-based coalitions and collaborations in support of improving children’s health and well-being in Rhode Island. The folks at the table don’t always agree, they readily admit, but they are willing to work together.
Bryant’s work is based upon providing policy makers and legislators with the best available information and data about children’s health, education, safety and economic security.
Bryant, a native of Providence, went to Classical High School, earned a B.A. from the University of Vermont in Political Science in 1979 and a law degree from George Washington University School of Law in 1985. She is also an adjunct lecturer in Public Policy at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, where she teaches Strategic Communication.
PBN: Rhode Island Kids Count has been a forceful advocate on behalf of children in Rhode Island, building its success on accurate collection of data to make its case. How important is the data-driven analysis in terms of your policy successes?
BRYANT: Data on the condition of children has been an essential ingredient for our policy successes. Policymakers regularly use our data to find out how children are doing in the state as a whole, and in every city and town. Our data is used to hold systems accountable, track trends over time, and identify areas where changes should be made to improve policies and programs that do not work.
PBN: In business terms, can you quantify the successes? What are the “returns on investment” and benefits in investing and promoting the health and well-being of Rhode Island’s children?
BRYANT: Rhode Island Kids Count uses research on best practices and data to promote public policies and programs to improve children’s lives. A good example of a positive return on investment is the cost/benefit of making sure that children have access to primary health care, including regular doctor check-ups that will prevent escalation of health conditions.
It is far more cost-effective to provide preventive health care for a child with asthma rather than having his asthma escalate, requiring costly hospitalization. It is more cost effective for a nurse home visitor to provide guidance to a young, high-risk teen mother on how to care for her baby than having the R.I. Department of Children Youth and Families caseload increase.
Finally, it is more cost effective to ensure that more young children hit the ground running in the K-12 public education system because they have benefited from high quality pre-kindergarten and childcare before school entry. These investments will ultimately provide Rhode Island with a more skilled work force.
PBN: As health reform implementation moves forward, what do you see as the key policy drivers for Rhode Island in regard to children?
BRYANT: National health reform contains many provisions that will improve health coverage and access to health services for Rhode Island children. All children stand to benefit from health reform, including those who are covered through employer-sponsored coverage; those enrolled in public health coverage through RIte Care, RIte Share and Medicaid; and those who currently have no insurance.
Under national health reform, insurers cannot deny coverage for children with pre-existing conditions; young adults up to age 26 can be covered as dependents on their parent’s coverage; and insurers cannot drop coverage for children or parents if they get sick.
In Rhode Island, about two-thirds of children are covered by their parents’ employer-sponsored health plans, and one-third receive health insurance through the RIte Care program. Because RIte Care is a national model for high quality, comprehensive children’s health insurance coverage that yields positive health outcomes, it will be important to build on the success of RIte Care as our state implements national health reform.
PBN: When Education Commissioner Deborah Gist ended her speech at the recent Rhode Island Kids Count Celebration of Children, saying it was her commitment to make Rhode Island the home of the best public schools in the nation, you jumped up to the podium and added: “And the healthiest kids in the nation, too.” Is this just rhetoric? Or, is there a specific plan and policy agenda to get there?
BRYANT: Rhode Island Kids Count and Commissioner Gist share the goal of making Rhode Island become home of the best schools and healthiest kids in the nation, and we collaborate on many initiatives towards that goal. We will be well on our way to meeting this goal when Rhode Island once again becomes the No. 1 state in the nation for children’s health insurance coverage.
Lack of access to preventive care health care and chronic health issues, such as asthma, can result in increased absenteeism. Rhode Island Kids Count collaborates with school districts to do outreach to families who may quality for RIte Care. Parents receive an informational flyer about RIte Care with their school lunch applications.
We also work closely on a number of other critical health issues that affect student performance, including proper nutrition, access to dental care and mental health services, and creating safe schools.
PBN: Do you see Rhode Island Kids Count in a similar policy advocate role as, say RIPEC for the business community? Has Rhode Island Kids Count developed its own relationship with the business community?
BURKE BRYANT: When we first started Rhode Island Kids Count, our goal was that our research, data and policy analysis would be of the highest quality and reliability, and that we would become the “RIPEC for children’s issues.”
I think we have achieved that. Rhode Island Kids Count is a member of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, we regularly share our data and research with the Chamber, and in the past we have collaborated on a national awards program for workplace flexibility. We view the Providence Chamber as an excellent partner in efforts to promote excellent schools and a high-quality work force for Rhode Island.