September 21, 2018
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The crucial health care legislation Congress should have been debating last month

J. David Ake | AP
J. David Ake | AP
Congress allowed the Children's Health Insurance Program to expire last month.

Leaders in Congress were so focused on taking health insurance away from millions of adults, through various attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that they let funding for an insurance program for children expire without taking any action.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program provides low-cost insurance to 9 million children, including 18,000 in Maine. The program aims to fill the gap between Medicaid and private, employer-based insurance. It covers children from low-income families that don’t qualify for Medicaid and would not have insurance coverage otherwise. In Maine and many other states states, it also covers pregnant women. The program’s federal funding expired on Sept. 30.

The program, which covers routine check-ups, dental care, vaccinations and other medical care, is largely federally funded. Some states, but not Maine, are expected to run out of funding for the program by the end of the year. Without a renewal of federal funds, Maine would run out of money for CHIP in June 2018, according to the Maine Children’s Alliance. Ninety-seven percent of the state’s CHIP funding comes from the federal government.

In Maine, CHIP is credited with decreasing the number of children not covered by health insurance to virtually zero, a major milestone. Nationally, it has reduced the percentage of children without health insurance from 14 percent in 1997 to 4.5 percent in 2015.

There are bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate to reauthorize CHIP for the next five years. Both bills would slowly reduce funding from its current level.

The biggest hurdle in the House is finding a way to pay for its $6 billion bill. The Senate bill has a price tag of $8 billion. Holding up funding for children’s health while searching for an offset would be especially cruel as Republican lawmakers have instructed Congress to reduce tax revenues by $1.5 trillion without any offset to pass a tax plan that would benefit the wealthy.

The CHIP program has had broad support. All four members of Maine’s delegation — two Republicans, a Democrat and an independent — voted for the last reauthorization two years ago.

This year’s Senate bill, although late, is sponsored by a Republican, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and a Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. Work on the bill is expected to begin this week.

“This strong, bipartisan CHIP bill ensures that children and their families will have good health care and states will have the certainty they need for years to come,” Wyden said in a statement when their bill was introduced last month.

“Working with my colleagues in both the Senate and House, we will push to advance this initiative and ensure the continued healthcare coverage for American children,” Hatch said in the same statement.

We believe that most lawmakers understand the value of this program. The question, then, will be one of priorities.

Protecting the health of America’s children, by ensuring their access to health care, should be enough of a priority that members of Congress will focus their attention on this legislation and pass it as quickly as possible.

 


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