Need proof the Republicans in Congress are prioritizing the desires of their donors over the needs of everyone else?
Let’s check in with the sorry saga of the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, better known as CHIP.
Senate Republicans, busy with tax reform, still somehow can’t make the time to reauthorize the program. And now thanks to their lack of action, millions of children might lose their access to medical care.
CHIP provides health insurance to 9 million children in the United States whose families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to pay for health insurance. The bulk of the program is funded by the federal government but administered by the states.
That this is happening at all gives lie to the myth that bipartisanship can solve our current political impasse. CHIP’s appeal is bipartisan. And CHIP is popular. It’s certainly better liked than the Republican’s plan to rejigger the tax code. According to a September Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 75 percent of those they surveyed considered CHIP’s renewal a high priority. Meanwhile, according to the most recent Politico Morning Consult poll, a mere 36 percent of registered voters support tax reform, the same number that actively oppose it.
CHIP’s most recent round of funding expired on Sept. 30. And if money from Washington is not forthcoming, a number of states say they will need to begin winding the program down. This week, the state of Colorado mailed letters to the families of the 75,000 children who receive health-care coverage through the federal program, saying money would run out for it by the end of January, and they should start looking for other ways to provide their children with health-care coverage. (Again, a reminder: They receive CHIP, for the most part, because their families can’t afford health insurance for them.)
Colorado is hardly alone. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 10 states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, Ohio and Pennsylvania, will likely run out of money to administer the program by the end of this year. And a majority of states will see their funds exhausted by March 2018.
There is no reason this should happen. CHIP came into existence as a bipartisan effort sponsored during the Clinton administration by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and still serving Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. It still enjoys broad, bipartisan support: Shortly before the program expired at the end of September, 30 senators, including Republicans Thad Cochran, Thom Tillis and Rob Portman, signed onto the same letter as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren calling for the program to be renewed immediately. How often does that happen?
But still the program was allowed to expire. That happened, in part, because of squabbling over how, exactly, Congress should fund the program, which costs an estimated $15 billion annually. In the Senate, before the program expired, Hatch and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden debuted a plan to keep the program going for another five years. The Senate Finance Committee passed it in early October. It’s just sitting there.
Republicans in the House, meanwhile, turned CHIP into a political football. When the House took up the matter a few weeks ago, Republicans did vote in favor of extending CHIP funding by five years and the legislation passed. Unfortunately, their bill also lost Democratic support since it contained cuts to the Affordable Care Act, including shortening the period before enrollees get cut off for not paying their premiums, something that will likely result in a reduction of people covered via the exchanges. At the same time, there was an increase in the cost of Medicare premiums for people earning more than $500,000 annually.
Then a few weeks ago, during a contentious debate about the Republican tax reform plan, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pressed Hatch (who, let me remind you was an original sponsor of the program) suggesting if Republicans are so concerned about struggling Americans, they could easily prove it by reauthorizing CHIP. Hatch angrily responded, “I’m not starting with CHIP. I’ve done it for years.”
Hatch appeared to mean: Trust me, I’ll take care of this soon. But why should we? Republicans have shown time and time again they are not exactly eager for government to help the middle class. First they prioritized overturning the Affordable Care Act. Now CHIP’s playing second banana to tax reform. They are claiming their tax reform package will help the middle class, when in fact, it’s main beneficiaries will be the wealthiest among us. We’ve no reason to believe the Senate will take this back up before the money runs out. Hopefully Colorado’s action will put some pressure on them to act.