Congress Quietly Let a Program Insuring 9 Million Children Expire

News & Politics

Children used to be the last frontier when it came to convincing Congress to act. From anti-poverty programs to gun control, activists frequently hoped that the "think of the children" argument, however cynical, could compel elected officials to consider voting for social programs. Then came Sandy Hook, and not even the deaths of elementary school children could pierce the NRA's armor or prevent Alex Jones from spreading conspiracy theories. Last week, the "save the kids" argument failed for health care and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The youngest lobbyists and their parents were instrumental in killing Graham-Cassidy, but amidst the relief of the bill's fall, Congress quietly allowed CHIP to expire. 

CHIP was a rare bipartisan success story, a 1997 program created out of the ashes of the Clinton-era crusade to provide Americans with universal health coverage. The program provides essential care for children in low- and moderate-income families. This includes annual checkups, immunizations, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental and vision care, inpatient and outpatient hospital care, X-ray services, and emergency services. The program was instrumental in lowering the uninsured rate of children from 14 percent in 1997, to 5 percent today. 

The funding comes mainly from the federal government, with additional support from states. Some states have funding to secure the program through the end of 2018, but according to a report from the Medicaid and CHIP Access Commission, many others, plus Washington, D.C., will drain theirs by the end of the year, and others by March of next year. The consequences, as Michael Hiltzik writes in the LA Times, "will be dire in many states, which will have to curtail or even shut down their children’s health programs until funding is restored."

The emergence of Graham-Cassidy was partly to blame. As Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group in Washington, told the LA Times, senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had almost reached an agreement to continue CHIP's funding. “Momentum was building,” he said, but then another Affordable Care Act repeal chance came along, and "we couldn’t even get a meeting... No one was even taking our calls.”

Doctors are concerned that they will have to go back to the days of telling parents there are no options for their children. As Dr. Dorothy Novick (no relation) writes in the Washington Post: 

"Every day I see patients in my practice who stand to lose their health care if Congress does not act to extend CHIP funding. Consider my patient who grew up in foster care, put herself through college and now earns a living as a freelance clothing designer. She is now a mother herself, and I treat her children. Her 1-year-old son has asthma and her 3-year-old daughter has a peanut allergy. They are able to follow up with me every three months and keep a ready supply of lifesaving medications because they qualify for CHIP."

It remains to be seen whether Congress will finally think of the children. 

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