Drastic cuts to child health programs are counterproductive to the long-term goal of controlling rising health care costs, which make up a significant share of the national debt. According to a recent Health Affairs study, chronic illness accounts for 84% of U.S. health care spending. When detected and monitored through preventive screenings early in life, chronic conditions can be treated sooner or even prevented altogether, resulting in much lower costs to the health care system and greater productivity in the adult workforce.

Children are not the cost driver of overall health care spending. Strong financial investments today in children’s health care, prevention programs and research will pay extraordinary dividends in years to come. And all health care spending is not the same.

While children make up more than half of all Medicaid enrollees, their care accounts for less than one-quarter of all Medicaid spending. In fact, in 2007, Medicaid spent $10,860 per senior enrollee, $7,022 per adult and just $1,829 per healthy child. This relatively small investment in children today will result in a healthier, stronger nation in generations to come.

Finally, spending on child health care is simply the right thing to do. Strengthening investments in prevention activities during childhood will help fight obesity and reduce costly chronic conditions like heart disease, asthma and diabetes that can last a lifetime.

Immunization programs keep our communities safe, and National Institutes of Health research uncovers life-altering cures and develops cost-saving treatments. We can’t afford to lose the public health momentum we’ve achieved over the last decade by abandoning federal support for these programs in appropriations legislation.

The House and Senate acted last week to pass a two-week Continuing Resolution (CR), allowing for extended negotiation to finalize appropriations for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011. While Congress should be recognized for its bipartisan consensus to avert a looming government shutdown, America’s pediatricians urge our federal leaders to come together again to invest in our country’s future.

What better way to ensure a strong financial outlook for future generations than to invest early in a healthy citizenry? Short-sighted budget cuts that reduce costs now at the expense of long-term investments in children’s health not only hurt our children, they harm our economic growth.

Sustained investments in our children’s health over time—uninterrupted—will make America healthier, more productive, and better able to compete in the global economy. These investments need to take place from the ground-up, and they need to start today.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ message to members of Congress this week is clear: Do no harm to children in federal appropriations. It’s time to put children first.

O. Marion Burton is the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.