Republicans Cheer Lavish Tax Breaks for the Wealthy as Healthcare for 9 Million Children Hangs in the Balance
"We’ve been dreaming of this since you and I were drinking out of a keg," GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan said in March to Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, regarding cutting Medicaid benefits.
After months of attempts to do so by repealing the Affordable Care Act, Ryan got closer than ever to his beer-soaked dreams, as Congress passed a $1.5 trillion tax plan. Ryan, Trump and Mitch McConnell celebrated this Christmas present to the Koch brothers, which in addition to providing generous, permanent tax cuts for corporations cuts the corporate tax rate to 21% (and the individual rate to 37), and strips critical health care protections from the public.
The GOP did this in complete secrecy, finding time to vote multiple times in the middle of the night for Ryan's wealth-transfer fantasies, but failed to determine how to save the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) a bipartisan program that provides health insurance to poor children. Congress let CHIP's funding expire at the end of September, but as Vox reports, "States and the feds have been getting by with some creative budgeting to make sure no kids are kicked off the rolls," in the hopes Congress might finally come up with a solution before the end of the legislative session.
Joan Alker, the director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families told Vox that "Never before has Congress let CHIP funding lapse for this length of time...Families need the peace of mind as they head into this holiday season that their CHIP coverage will be secure."
With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, that dream seemed dead Wednesday afternoon, per a joint statement from senators Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins:
"[They] have asked Senator McConnell not to offer this week our legislation which independent analysts Avalere and Oliver-Wyman say would reduce premiums by about 20 percent for the 9 million Americans who have no government subsidies to help them buy insurance in the individual market. Instead, we will offer it after the first of the year when the Senate will consider the omnibus spending bill, the Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization, funding for Community Health Centers, and other legislation that was to have been enacted this week."
Thursday afternoon, CHIP was back from the dead or at least on life support, in the form of a stopgap measure in the Continuing Resolution, the bill that funds the government (and must be voted on by midnight Friday for the government to stay open), through March. As the Washington Examiner reported, it "gives CHIP $2.85 billion in new funding through the end of March. It also includes $750 million in new money for community health centers and a special diabetes program that are also short on funds."
This short-term fix is not the full-scale reauthorization that activists and Democratic lawmakers alike were hoping for, but a way to get Congress to agree on a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown.
As of Thursday afternoon, time is running out. States have already begun to announce freezes for the programs. The Alabama Department of Public Health website has an ominous notice above what is usually its Al Kids (Alabama's name for CHIP) section saying:
"Effective January 1, 2018, ALL Kids will no longer enroll children. All applications and renewal forms received on or after that date will be processed for Medicaid eligibility or referred to the Health Insurance Marketplace. Children currently enrolled in ALL Kids will continue to receive benefits for now. If Congress does not act soon, coverage for active ALL Kids enrollees will be terminated effective February 1, 2018, regardless of the “Good Thru Date” on their ALL Kids insurance card."
Activists and state government officials are furious that childrens' lives are just another bargaining chip in the GOP's frenzy to pass tax cuts before the end of the legislative year. On Tuesday, activists stormed Congress demanding reauthorization. Parents of sick children pleaded with members of Congress all over the country. "I am here to call on the Senate to do the right thing and invest in our nation’s true future, invest in the children, to save CHIP and to save children’s lives,” Sonja Reynolds, a mother of five children who have CHIP, explained to the New York Times. “CHIP is being used as a pawn in larger debates and negotiations,”
Linda Nablo, the chief deputy director of the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, told the New York Times. Virginia has sent letters to 68,000 families at risk of losing coverage if an extension for the program is not secured. Colorado, which had been relying on budget reserves to fund CHIP, is on track to be tapped out by the end of January.
Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives with the Colorado Children's Campaign, told Public News Service that 90,000 children and pregnant women who rely on the program annually could lose coverage. She explained,"If we don't have a federal guarantee that financing for this program is going to continue, families are going to get letters letting them know that their coverage is ending, that they need to find new coverage...And so those letters are scheduled to go out at the end of December because coverage is going to end at the end of January."
Connecticut is also ending its program January 31.
Hours after the tax bill vote, activists were considering next steps. "This GOP ‘win’ is a loss for all of us. It will cause pain and suffering for years to come," Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the Indivisible Project, said in a statement. Angel Padilla, policy director of Indivisible, told AlterNet, "it's shameful and disgraceful that this Congress has not extended CHIP funding. One of the lead authors is [Conservative Republican] Orrin Hatch, no reason not to pass." Padilla emphasized that extending the funding through March was "barely adequate" and that Congress is playing with a very serious issue. Nine million kids."
Because of the small extension however, Indivisible is not advocating that members of Congress decline to vote for a CR without a full reauthorization, as they are for a clean Dream Act, and protection for the 800,000 Americans who came to America as children and are at risk of deportation.
The key for Democrats, Padilla continued, is to remember that budget votes aren't just about money, but about standing up for democratic values—a chance "for Democrats to show what they're for. They stayed together on healthcare, on taxes, now they can stay together...Dream, CHIP, disaster relief [for Puerto Rico], stabilization for ACA, all of those things are a top priority."