Congress should find the money for children's health insurance

Posted January 13, 2018 12:07 p.m. EST

Because Floom earns too much income to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford the cost of private or employer-sponsored insurance, her daughter receives subsidized health coverage through Florida KidCare, the state's version of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program. She pays $158 a month for the coverage.

Her daughter is one of some 215,000 kids in Florida insured through CHIP and one of 9 million kids insured through the program nationwide.

"My daughter's been on CHIP since she was born," Floom said. "She receives routine physicals and immunizations. Whenever she doesn't feel well, I take her to a pediatrician. She has allergies, so she takes two different kinds of allergy medications daily. Thanks to CHIP, the full cost of all medications are covered. I wouldn't be able to afford medical expenses out of my pocket."

When Congress failed to reauthorize funding for the program in September, the end of the fiscal year, Floom, like millions of other low-income parents, worried that her daughter would be left without adequate insurance.

Republicans who control Congress got so consumed with trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and pass tax cuts that they did not renew CHIP. Rushing to get home for Christmas, Congress injected nearly $3 billion into CHIP to keep the program funded through March. The money was part of the short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Fortunately, individual states had enough money to keep their programs running for the remainder of 2017.

Now many states say they still risk running out of money even with the latest short-term patch. The crude irony is that CHIP, which is popular among many Republican voters, is highly successful and inexpensive.

Raw numbers show that during its two decades of operation, CHIP has slashed the uninsured rate for kids by more than half, from 14.5 percent to 5 percent.

CHIP and Medicaid cover so-called expansive benefits for children such as dental care, often excluded from private health insurance. CHIP also covers special health care needs such as physical, occupational and language and speech therapies. Kaiser Family Foundation studies and those of other groups show that CHIP helps reduce hospitalizations and child deaths.

Other studies show that improved health among children with CHIP and Medicaid produces gains in education. Many researchers suggest that gains in education improve both individual economic well-being and overall economic productivity.

CHIP is a win-win for the nation, so why are Republicans using it for political leverage? The answer is simple: wrongheaded conservative ideology rules.

By passing the tax bill, Republicans showed that they can get done what they want to get done. Funding CHIP should have been a slam dunk. But it was not. Apparently, health care for low-income children is not a priority for Washington's right-wing ideologues.

Congress is back in session this week, and most members want to avoid a government shutdown. Hardliners, however, want to use CHIP as a bargaining tool to take money from other health care programs. Some senators say they will oppose any version of the omnibus spending bill that does not include reauthorization of CHIP. Meanwhile, states are running out of money to keep their programs operating.

Low-income parents such as Jean Floom should not be forced to agonize over the future of their children's health care because of cynical political maneuvering.

"I fully depend on CHIP for my daughter's medical care," Floom said. "I was grateful when I was able to find a plan that I could afford. Health insurance is a necessity, and the thought that it could be cut or changed is scary. I believe some things can be cut or changed, but children's health insurance isn't one of them."

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