California health leaders discuss disparities in children’s health


Hannah Saunders


Healthcare leaders met at the 2024 Northern California State of Reform Health Policy Conference last month to discuss the state of children’s health and welfare in the state, and consider ways to make improvements. 

Mike Odeh, senior director of Health at Children Now, discussed the state auditor’s reports that highlight deficiencies in the Medi-Cal delivery system. He noted that children require basic preventative healthcare, like immunizations and an assortment of screenings, which Black infants and toddlers are least likely to receive when compared to other races. 

“We’re tracking the right measures, but we’re not doing very well on them,” Odeh said. 

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While Palav Babaria, chief quality officer and deputy director of Quality and Population Health Management at California’s Department of Health Care Services, only sees adult patients, she said every adult with complex chronic health conditions can trace those conditions back to their childhood. Babaria said an ounce of prevention is worth one pound of cure, which she sees in the state’s healthcare delivery system on a daily basis. 

“The only way we’re going to move the health and wellness of our state (forward) is really by tackling the challenges that exist in the maternal child space,” Babaria said. 

To tackle these challenges, Babaria said providers must be smarter about where they spend their time, energy, and resources. Data shows that California is lagging in children’s preventative care, maternity outcomes, and birth equity, Babaria said. CalAIM (California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal) is a great opportunity to drive that change, she said.

Nancy Wongvipat Kalev, senior director of Systems of Care at Health Net, said she had not seen a systemic focus on addressing social determinants of health in her career until CalAIM was launched in 2022. Kalev said CalAIM provides an opportunity to build a workforce that centers on individuals with lived experiences, which is helpful when it comes to addressing Medi-Cal members’ confusion around benefits and eligibility. Part of that confusion is due to the differences in CalAIM benefits between adults and children. 

Addressing challenges through core functions is a focus of Julie Gallelo, executive director of First Five. First Five’s upcoming strategic plan will focus on delivery systems, Gallelo said. She discussed several campaign efforts aiming to address adverse child health outcomes. 

“Our Black Child Legacy Campaign is laser-focused on reducing preventable African American child deaths caused by perinatal conditions: low birth weight and prematurity, sleep-related deaths, child abuse, neglect, and homicides,” Gallelo said.

First Five also funds the Black Mothers United program, which Gallelo said is a prime example of enhanced care management. The program connects pregnant African Americans to peer support coaches (community health workers and doulas). The community health workers act as mentors, advocates, and friends, Gallelo said. The program focuses on African American birthing people in the state’s seven highest zip codes for child deaths due to perinatal conditions. 

“We also fund programming to reduce infant-sleep deaths, which includes education; we also give a crib to anybody in the county who needs a safe place to sleep their child,” Gallelo said.

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