To most families and communities, promoting and protecting the health and well-being of their children is a top priority. At the Maine Children’s Alliance, we know that when children access quality health care early, they are more likely to be on track to become healthy and thriving adults. In an aging state like Maine, we all benefit.

Unfortunately, the inaction on the Children’s Health Insurance Program suggests that Congress does not share these priorities.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program has a long-history of bipartisan support and an impressive track record of success. Yet, when faced with the Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize funding, lawmakers disregarded a 20-year tradition of bipartisan support and let our children’s health slip through the cracks to focus on a last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And now the program is once again on the back burner as Congress debates the tax bill.

[The crucial health care legislation Congress should have been debating last month]

In so doing, these lawmakers put in jeopardy health care for the nearly 9 million children who depend upon this insurance program, including more than 18,000 children in Maine. Thanks to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, there are now more insured children than ever before in our country’s history — more than 95 percent of kids have coverage today. Children who have health coverage are more likely to do well in school, go on to college and achieve financial security later in life.

But Congress’ failure to come together in a bipartisan manner to reauthorize this program almost two months past its deadline could leave children across the country with few options.

Earlier this year, the Maine Children’s Alliance spoke with a pediatrician from Belfast who revealed just what happens when quality health care coverage is out of reach for Maine kids: children fall behind on immunizations, skip annual well-child visits, and simply do not get the preventive care they need to be healthy and developmentally on track. This does not need to happen. Failure to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program is bad for the future of our state and country.

It was created with bipartisan support in 1997 to provide comprehensive, affordable coverage for children in low- and modest-income families who otherwise would not be able to afford coverage or specific services that kids need. The program works side by side with Medicaid, and it is particularly important for families with special needs children, children in rural communities and children of color.

In fact, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program work together to cover children who face barriers in accessing health care, particularly children living in rural areas and children facing racial and ethnic disparities. The data show that these programs cover half of all kids with special health care needs and half of children living in rural areas. Nearly two-thirds of children who are covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are African-American or Latino.

[Report: Children gain health insurance in rest of US, but lose it in Maine]

Without reauthorization, states will run out of funding for the program starting in December, possibly causing a lapse in coverage for thousands of children. Maine is estimated to run out of funds by next June, and our children cannot afford to wait.

Our kids need lawmakers to come together with a bipartisan agreement to reauthorize funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program now — and a recently passed House bill to reauthorize it is not the answer. It pays for reauthorization with cuts to other health care programs, including the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, and by raising Medicare costs for some seniors. Pitting the health and well-being of our children against our seniors is reckless and irresponsible.

A group of bipartisan state lawmakers already sent a letter to Congress calling for swift, bipartisan action on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Now it’s time for Maine’s federal delegation and their colleagues to act.

This program helps more Maine kids access the health care they need to promote brain development, experience improved health, and attain higher education and economic outcomes — essentially become thriving adults. It’s time for lawmakers to get their priorities straight. It’s time to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Claire Berkowitz is the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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