CHIP: Congress Must Stop Playing politics with our Children's Healthcare

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Mariane Wright Edelman. Photo: Elizabethtown College-Flickr.

On May 11, 1997 Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) began his remarks at a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) conference with the lyrics from “Freedom’s Light,” a song written by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as the two together announced historic legislation that ultimately led to the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which has brought light, hope and health care to nearly 9 million low-income children in the form of affordable health insurance: "In this dark day of discontent, So many feel despair, As poverty and dissidence, Cause sadness everywhere.”

Thanks to their tireless bipartisan work over many months Senators Kennedy and Hatch got CHIP across the finish line and it was signed into law by President Clinton on August 5, 1997. I described it then and now as one of the biggest advances for children in decades. It was another historical moment when politics were divisive and broader efforts at health reform had failed – but members of Congress put children first and moved forward.

It was CHIP’s bipartisan beginning that set it on the path to success. For 20 years CHIP has been there, giving working families the security of knowing their children had access to high-quality, child-appropriate health coverage they could afford. CHIP has helped reduce the number of uninsured children by half, improved health outcomes and access to care for children, and helped reduce school absenteeism and improve children’s readiness to learn.

Today CHIP is a lifeline for 8.9 million children living in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private coverage. They are children like Brandon, a Houston six-year-old who needed CHIP to help cover his treatments for asthma and high blood pressure after his father lost his job; or the Philadelphia family who relied on CHIP for their three young children to see providers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Health System and for routine needs like visits to a mobile dental van; and others whose stories we’ve shared over the years. Together CHIP and Medicaid form the foundation of our nation’s health care system for children.

Now 20 years after CHIP put an entire generation of children on the path to a healthy adulthood, we stand at another pivotal moment: unless Congress takes action, funding for this essential, popular, highly successful program will end after September 30, 2017. Without this funding, millions of children could lose health coverage or pay more for less comprehensive coverage, leaving these children significantly worse off than they are today.

Senator Hatch is once again leading the bipartisan charge to extend CHIP funding this time partnering with Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). They convened a Senate Finance Committee hearing on September 7th to discuss CHIP’s future and lay the groundwork for its urgent extension millions of children need. With CHIP funding possibly ending by the end of this month, states face critical decisions about the future of their programs. If funding is not forthcoming quickly, states will have to take actions that will create chaos in program administration and confusion for families trying to access coverage for their children, including establishing waiting lists and sending out disenrollment notices. Congress must act now to avoid harmful disruption to children’s health and well-being.

CDF hopes you will join us in urging Congress to assure by September 30th a CHIP extension that:

Ensures continued funding and stability for at least the next five years. Any shorter term funding extension would not allow states to invest in improvements to child health or make responsible budgeting decisions. Advance planning is critical for all states, and especially for those operating under biennial budgets.

Maintains current CHIP policy to ensure coverage, eligibility levels and cost-sharing protections will be continued for the duration of the funding extension. With state budgets already finalized for the coming year, states and families are depending on stability in CHIP policy and funding. Maintaining CHIP’s enhanced matching rate and maintenance of effort requirements in current law will help states avoid significant disruption in children’s coverage.

Relieves state agencies of the need for contingency planning. Congress cannot wait to extend CHIP. Many states are developing their future budgets, making commitments to children and families, and negotiating contracts with insurers right now. They need to know whether and what federal CHIP funding will remain or states will have to begin expensive and chaotic contingency planning that could lead to drastic program cuts through enrollment caps, reductions in eligibility and/or benefits, and/or cuts in provider payments.

Is not coupled with any cuts, caps or other changes to Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Medicaid and CHIP work together and make up the foundation of health coverage for children in America. As Congressional leaders contemplate changes to our health care system, they must not hold CHIP hostage by enacting structural changes or cuts to Medicaid or other legislative proposals harmful to children and low-income Americans.

Congress must not play politics with the health of so many millions of our children. Amidst so much unrest and insecurity in our country and instability in our health care system facing an opioid crisis and the aftermath of damaging hurricanes afflicting countless children, Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle must step up together to ensure a healthy start for the 46 million children now helped by Medicaid and CHIP.

Assuring children access to needed health coverage to survive and thrive is surely something we can agree on and get done now. Children should not be political footballs for any politician or political party.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

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