As a nation, we are overlooking the most fundamental step required to provide for our economic welfare and quality of life in the next century.

We can fulfill our responsibilities to the next generation and maintain our competitive posture in the worldwide economy only if today's children become healthy, productive adults.This requires that children have adequate health care during their early years, giving them a proper foundation for succeeding in their education.

The number of workers supporting each retiree has decreased fourfold in the past 50 years, and we will need workers with a greater capacity to develop skills in the next 50 years than ever before.

We can't afford to squander our natural human resources by failing to produce physically and mentally healthy children.

There are honest differences of opinion over what should be done about many important educational and social issues that adversely affect children, especially those living in poverty.

However, there is no debate about the proposition that all children should be provided basic medical care. Good health is a prerequisite to being able to learn, to develop normally and to being able to work to one's full potential.

Ensuring a healthy, well-educated next generation is our best and perhaps only way of guaranteeing future national security. At the very least, we should start now by providing all pregnant women and newborns with a basic health-insurance plan.

We propose the following:

1. A health-benefit package similar to that proposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics should be required for all insurance policies and should be included in every employee's health-insurance benefits package.

2. For those children whose parents cannot afford a policy directly or through employers, coverage should be purchased through a combination of income-graduated, parent-paid premiums, public funds financed by a payroll tax on employers and employees, and allocations from state and federal budgets. It is reasonable that the public funds come from those whose families will benefit in the future from the good health of all children.

3. The plan should include cost-saving measures such as managed care.

The program could be phased in one year at a time for all pregnant women and newborns. This would not only keep the initial costs down, but also would provide an opportunity to field-test the program and work out unanticipated problems.

It would cost a small fraction of what we currently spend on the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid nursing-home care.

But most importantly, it would contribute to future productivity by fostering a healthy beginning for our most vulnerable group of children, who could benefit most from providing effective prevention and treatment.