It’s hard to believe that any government would jeopardize the welfare of vulnerable children, yet that seems to be happening now that the Republicans control all levers of government. It’s not that the GOP doesn’t care about the welfare of children, but that internal squabbling and bickering about how to fund an important bill is creating anxiety for the millions who rely upon it.
The program in question is the Children’s Health Insurance Program — or CHIP — which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1997. The legislation was pushed into law by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who reached across the aisle to partner with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT), to finally protect the most vulnerable people in American society.
In all, about nine million children are enrolled in CHIP and, for about 1 in 8 American kids, it’s the only health coverage they have.
Now CHIP is unlikely to be funded during this session of Congress, since the GOP was too focused on tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations to take care of this vital program. Many states, including Colorado and Connecticut, are already informing patients that their healthcare is about to end. Two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins, have indicated that it won’t be tackled until next year.
The result? A nightmare.
According to Vox, as many as two million kids are losing access to affordable healthcare in 25 states. Alabama is freezing enrollment starting January 1. Connecticut may shutter the program entirely. In Colorado, pregnant mothers are being told they won’t have coverage when their babies are due.
It’s hard to see how the GOP is doing any other than losing votes for the 2018 elections. The program is wildly popular among patients and providers.
"CHIP is probably one of the most successful government programs we've enacted in the last couple of decades," says Timothy McBride, a professor of health economics at Washington University in St. Louis. As chairman of that state's Medicaid oversight committee, McBride also oversees CHIP.
He argues that the program applies an old adage — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — that should garner bipartisan support.
"It's extremely important," McBride adds, "because it's developmental — it's vaccines. You know it can reduce the likelihood that a person has a lifelong chronic disease.”
CHIP funding was up for renewal in September, and the House has passed a bill that would cover the program for next five years, supposedly by cutting Medicare, but repeated attempts by the Republican-controlled Congress haven’t moved the bill forward. The problem isn’t the legislation itself. When it was last up for renewal in 2015, it garnered wide bipartisan support. But now that Republicans are completely in charge, they can’t decide how to pay for its extension.
Sixteen states are now in danger of running out of funds in the next month, including blue states like California, Washington and Massachusetts, and red states like Texas, Utah and Idaho.
Matt Moore, vice president of government relations at Children’s Health in Dallas, said Congress needs to pass a reauthorization bill quickly or millions of children and their parents will have to run a gauntlet every time a young family member gets ill.
“We’ve been disappointed they haven’t taken care of it in a timely manner yet,” Moore said. “There are a lot of members of Congress who thought it would be taken care of earlier in the year. As time went by, CHIP kept getting pushed back to the back burner. Here we are in overtime, and we really are wringing our hands and getting truly concerned about it.”
For parents, the concerns are dramatic and heartbreaking. A family living near the poverty cannot spend $1,800 for an ER visit when a child falls and breaks her arm, nor can they cover regular doctor visits for vaccines and checkups during the first year of life. And even if Congress acts, many suggest that real damage will be done to the program, and some parents might look to alternatives they cannot afford, or no longer trust a system they desperately need.
The CHIP funding bill from Congress calls for offsets to pay for it, and that seems to be the monkey wrench in the works. Many legislators have expressed support and promised to solve the problem before this week’s Christmas break, but with Republican efforts focused on passing a tax bill that largely benefits corporations, millionaires and billionaires, the worry is that the CHIP bill will be forgotten.
If that happens, this holiday season may be less festive for many families as thousands open letters canceling important medical appointments and procedures for their children.