A pediatrician examines a child prior to updating her immunizations. (Courtesy of Austin Regional Clinic and Leindani Creative)

Kurt Newman is chief executive and president of Children’s National Health System

With all eyes focused on the nation’s health-care system, our leaders have an opportunity to put the health and future of America’s children first. Congress should consider building a tailor-made national health-care plan just for children.

Just as we created Medicare for the elderly, we need an approach to pediatric health care that not only provides coverage to every child but also ensures adequate funding for essential services that meet child-specific needs.

Our current patchwork system addresses only the first half of that equation. Right now, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program form the country’s pediatric health-care safety net, together serving children across the nation’s urban, rural and suburban communities. These programs provide vital access to health services that more than 36 million American children need and cannot afford to lose.

But they are force-fit solutions for children in a health-care system designed for adults.

We know that kids have the best chance at getting and staying healthy when they receive specialized pediatric care that is tailored to their needs. The medical community and parents alike embraced that concept long ago. That’s why we bring children to pediatricians and surgeons with specialized pediatric training when they are sick. It’s also why dedicated children’s hospitals and clinics have become such an important part of our pediatric care delivery network.

Now we need a health-care system with infrastructure and resources to support specialized pediatric medicine. One promising approach is to carve children out of the Medicaid mix and build a separate plan just for kids.

Children make up 50 percent of today’s Medicaid population but account for just 20 percent of Medicaid spending. Our children are competing for a shrinking share of a funding pool that also supports a growing number of adults, seniors and disabled individuals — whose needs are often much more expensive.

In today’s model, children of the same age and family income often qualify for different levels of care just because they live in different states. A cohesive national plan just for children could standardize the eligibility criteria for health coverage, offering every child access to the same level of care — no matter where he or she lives.

Such a plan would provide stability for a patient group that requires unique services, treatments and therapies. It would provide infrastructure and security for children’s hospitals and pediatric specialists who scramble to operate within a system built for adult medicine.

It would also make good economic sense for our country’s future. The most common adult chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion every year. In addition to direct health-care costs, these illnesses hurt the labor supply, reduce productivity and diminish gross domestic product.

But when diagnosed and managed during childhood, many chronic adult illnesses and their symptoms can be treated, improved or prevented. And often, the most aggressive interventions work better in children than in grown-ups. The fact that cells multiply exponentially faster in growing young bodies means that kids are decidedly more responsive to cancer treatments than adults. Bone marrow transplants, for instance, often yield more successful outcomes in pediatric leukemia patients than adults, because children can tolerate more intensive treatment regimens.

We are entering a formative period in which the fundamental nature of our health-care laws will be debated and potentially reshaped. We owe it to our children — the next generation of American workers — to make sure that any new policies or changes to our health-care laws put their needs first.

Congress has an opportunity to keep children’s health out of partisan politics by focusing specifically on the initiatives that help them grow up stronger. It isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also a smart investment in our country’s future.