Thursday, July 08, 2004

Niggling details

I'm confused over this medication act held up by Kennedy.
A bill banning schools from coercing parents into putting their children on psychotropic drugs, passed with near-universal support in the House, is being tied up in a Senate committee by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who contends it requires more study.

Supporters of the bill, which sailed through the House 425 to 1, said it will help prevent an epidemic of children on drugs like Ritalin and Prozac, and that Kennedy is being influenced by his longstanding ties to health and pharmaceutical associations, which contend the bill will discourage the diagnosis of mental illnesses that could be easily treated.

The Child Medication Safety Act has sat in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions all year. Proponents say Senate leaders never told them why the bill had not come up for a vote, but this week Kennedy, who is the committee's ranking member, confirmed to the Globe that he is seeking to delay its consideration.

''This is a complex question that demands a serious study," Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement. ''Until we know the extent of the problem, any further action is unwarranted."

The bill was prompted by complaints from parents that school officials were threatening to keep their children out of class unless they took behavior-altering medication. About 11 million schoolchildren and adolescents took prescription drugs for mental health in 2002, and the number is rising.

The bill denies federal funds to schools that fail to implement a policy to ''protect children and their parents from being coerced into administering a controlled substance in order to attend school, and for other purposes," such as extracurricular activities.
I've been sitting on the story because I suspect there's an angle to this yet to be discovered. The little I do know about is driving me bananas because the pieces don't make sense.

The Children's Medication Act was approved nearly unanimously by the House. This bill proposes to punish schools requiring kids to take medication. Schools would be denied federal funding if they do that. I would normally jump for joy over this but a few niggling details are bugging me.

1. The nearly unanimous vote is curious, given the ties big pharma has to Congress critters. It reminds me of couple of other famous acts passed with such solidarity, only later seen with regret. But what is going on here? How did these Congress critters get out of their loyalties to big bucks? Puzzle number one.

2. Kennedy is holding this bill hostage in the Senate committee. He's being targeted ferociously for doing so. His take: he's not opposed to the thing but because it's an incomplete bill, he wants to hold it up for more study. Actually, he says he wants to include a more complete version in another bill. This sounds more like politicking for points within the committee but I'm not privy to such details. His response does not resonate with me although I will allow the lack of details in his response is probably due to lack of space and the need to simplify
UNFORTUNATELY, the July 2 front-page story about my role in the Child Medication Safety Act failed to take into account the current legislative situation on the bill in Congress ("Kennedy ties up drug bill"). I do not oppose the bill, and I certainly do not support a requirement by schools that parents put a child on drugs such as Ritalin or Prozac as a condition of attending school or participating in a school activity. Schools are supposed to educate, not medicate.

My problem with the bill is that it does too little. National policy must not have the unintended effect of discouraging schools from identifying and informing parents about the classroom difficulties faced by children with mental health or learning issues. I support a thorough study of this situation so students can receive the mental health and educational support services they need.

What the article fails to note is that, since then, both the House and the Senate have been dealing with this issue as part of a much more comprehensive bill, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Passage of that major legislation continues to be one of my highest priorities in this Congress, and final action is awaiting a House-Senate conference to reconcile the differences in the bills passed by each chamber.

My hope is that we can do much more than simply prohibit schools from mandating drugs to control student behavior. The pending IDEA bills adopt a much more comprehensive approach, and I'm optimistic that Congress will complete action soon. What's needed is much more effective action by schools, working with parents and health professionals, to address the needs of children with learning disabilities.
Puzzle number two.

3. The people who are attacking him are conservatives who say if he doesn't let the bill continue, he'll make public schools a place they don't want to send their kids to. While I agree with the sentiment superficially, their argument doesn't make sense at all. Conservatives generally don't care much for public schools. They push for federally subsidized private schools. While their clamor could be just a knee jerk reaction to anything this flaming liberal icon does, I wonder if there's something else. Puzzle number three.

4. The fourth is the development and rumors of the universal mental health screening thing coming down the pike. Here we'll have all the kids screened for 'mental illness', whatever that may mean, and presumably the kids who really need the drugs will get them now. No excuses due to poverty or lack of access. Here you have the right hand doing something different from the left hand. Or is it? Color me stupefied; I don't know how the two trends can be resolved: one to put a kibosh on requiring medications and the second to screen all kids for mental illness. Puzzle number 4.

In trying to flesh this out a bit, I wondered just how the feds will punish schools. Will they establish a drug squad to bust schools for illegally pushing meds? How will they pay for this? Could this be still another vehicle to take money away from public schools?

And then with the development of the massive mental health screening program, how do you implement it without requiring kids to take meds? Seems to be a major waste of effort.

I don't know. Something smells awfully fishy here in my opinion. Either that or I'm really missing marbles.