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Joe Biden: UD health initiative can be national model

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Joe Biden at the Vision Coalition conference at UD.

Former Vice President Joe Biden makes a quick stop to visit with students from Newark High School at the Vision Coalition's 10th annual conference held at the University of Delaware Monday. Photo by Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal.

Story by Jessica Bies, The News Journal

Former Vice President Joe Biden hailed a new University of Delaware initiative Monday for having the potential to create healthier, more equitable communities. 

"I think this is a big opportunity for the university and the state to tackle a really important issue," he said. "If we get this right, we literally can be a model for the nation, as we are for child abuse prevention and a number of other things." 

Biden gave the keynote speech at the Vision Coalition of Delaware's 10th Annual Conference, which focused on strengthening partnerships in both health and education. The coalition is a public-private partnership composed of a broad range of Delawareans working to improve public education.

At the event, UD announced the launch of its new Partnership for Healthy Communities, which will bring together community-based organizations and government agencies to increase access to affordable, high-quality healthcare. In December, the university launched a similar initiative: the Partnership for Public Education.

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Joe Biden speaking at the Vision Coalition Conference.

The Honorable Joe Biden, former Vice President of the United States speaks at the annual Vision Conference that discusses the future of education in Delaware. Photo by Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal.

"This is the natural sequence," UD President Dennis Assanis said. "Because we do feel that health and education go together." 

That was the theme of the conference and experts talked about how health and education intersect. 

"Health and education are fundamentally intertwined," Sen. Chris Coons said, adding that when it comes to healthcare access and the Affordable Care Act: "I'm not terribly optimistic with where we stand today in Washington." 

"We are utterly failing to see past our partisan differences and see the faces of the parents and children that deserve access to quality healthcare," he said. 

He also talked about how health and education issues put kids in an unfair position. 

"Far too many of our children, they do not have the chance to be just kids," he said. "They face health and educational issues that are daunting and that they do not deserve." 

In Delaware, one of those issues is that only half of all third graders can read at grade level, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said.

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Joe Biden delivering address at the Vision Coalition Conference.

The Honorable Joe Biden, former Vice President of the United States speaks at the annual Vision Conference that discusses the future of education in Delaware. Photo by Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal.

She called reading proficiency a "scary and accurate" predictor of high school success research shows that a child who can read at grade level by third grade is four times more likely to graduate on time.

Bunting said one of the biggest challenges facing educators is poverty and the impact it has on children's health and mental state.

"Poverty really is the strongest determinant of health," said Erin Knight, the associate director for UD's new healthy communities partnership. 

She said low-income children are four times more likely to be in poor health than their peers, which could have an impact on their academic performance. Low-income kids are less likely to go to preschool or graduate from high school. They hear as many as 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than their higher-income peers, putting them behind when it comes to language and vocabulary skills.

Despite many new state policies since 2009, the condition of child poverty in Delaware has become more acute, said Dan Rich, director of UD's Community Engagement Initiative. 

Using a three-year period, KIDS COUNT, a data center that tracks the well-being of kids in the U.S., estimates an average of 10.2 percent of adults and 18.5 percent children in Delaware were living in poverty from 2014-16. 

In Dover, 32.7 percent of kids live in poverty, while in Wilmington 34.7 percent do. The county with the highest poverty rate in Delaware is Sussex, with 21.6 percent of children falling into that category. 

"Unfortunately, child poverty in Delaware is much higher today than it was in 2009," Rich said. 

He said the number of English language learners and special education students is also growing, which has put strain on the education system.

Delaware does not provide focused resources for low-income students, English language learners and basic special education students in grades K-3, though Gov. John Carney recently awarded $1 million in opportunity grants to schools serving disadvantaged students. 

Carney has re-established something called the Family Services Cabinet Council to help coordinate public and private services for Delaware families.

It is tasked with implementing innovative tools and strategies for addressing a series of specific issues, including: breaking the school-to-prison pipeline; improving access to early childhood education; increasing the availability of affordable housing; improving access to substance abuse treatment; reducing recidivism in Delawares correctional system; expanding job training opportunities; and reducing violence in Delawares neighborhoods.

Driving public policy 

Assanis said universities have an important role in driving public policy and that by studying both health and education UD can help effect change in those areas. 

Biden also stressed the importance of gathering data to build public policy on, though sometimes legislators "go with their gut." 

When then-Sen. Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990, he had no idea what the economic cost of domestic violence in the U.S. was. But he did have the sexual assault of a close friend to dwell upon.

It wasn't until 2004 that the Centers for Disease Control crunched the numbers and came up with "$8 billion a year," Biden said

The CDC breaks that number down into $460 million for rape, $6.2 billion for physical assault, $461 million for stalking and $1.2 billion in the value of lost lives. About $5 billion of the total costs are for things like mental health services and the treatment of conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and stress, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. 

Today, another issue that could use more research is the gun violence epidemic, which has left children and families in Wilmington dealing with trauma and mental-health issues.

As of now, there is no definitive report on how much gun violence costs the U.S. annually, though Mother Jones, a progressive American magazine, puts it at about $229 billion a year. That figure includes direct costs, including the cost of emergency respondents and health care for someone who's been shot, or the cost of putting someone in prison for a homicide.

But Biden knows gun violence is a problem. On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns, seven of them children and teens. Nearly 62 percent of firearms deaths in the U.S. are suicides and the U.S.'s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other developed countries. 

So far this year, at least 27 people in Delaware have died in shootings. 

"Imagine your child, sitting on the porch, exposed to two people shot dead ... by a 15-year-old," Biden said. "What would the impact on them be?" 

We have to put front and center the health care costs, the total health care costs of gun violence," he said. "Folks, we have a public health crisis on hand." 

"And now, the CDC is afraid to conduct those studies because they're afraid they'll get their funding cut off in this Congress." 

Biden said it will be up to universities to do research and come up with a firm basis for gun control. It's an issue that is complicated by lobbyists and the "right to bear arms," but needs attention, he said. 

Public opinion still is impacted by thoughts and studies by great universities and material that is put out," he said, adding that while he supports the second amendment, "we've always been able to limit who can purchase a weapon, just like who can buy an automobile."

Original story at The News Journal.

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