DISAGREEMENT IN Congress is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction. But when both parties broadly agree that something should happen yet serially fail to follow through, the nation’s leaders look particularly inept. The example of the moment is the ongoing saga of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a popular service that covers 9 million young Americans — and that is rapidly running out of cash, alarming families that rely on the federal aid to keep their children healthy.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress created CHIP in 1997 to assist families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, the health-insurance program for the poor, yet who do not have reasonable alternative options for insuring their children. Given that decent health care in early years is crucial, lawmakers rightly decided to invest in the nation’s future health. The program has been a remarkable success, driving children’s uninsured rate down to about 4 percent.
But, unlike Medicaid, Congress did not make CHIP an entitlement program that automatically and perpetually draws as much money as it needs from the treasury. Rather, it required lawmakers to regularly re-up CHIP’s funding, which they did in 2015, under the reasonable assumption that Congress would not want to be blamed for kicking children off their insurance.
The 2015 funding dried up in September, and lawmakers pumped in enough emergency funds to sustain the program for only a few months. States have begun planning for a funding shortage, with some warning families that their coverage might lapse. The disruption uselessly alarms parents, scrambles doctors’ planning and eats up time state officials could use for more important things.
House Republicans might feel as though they already did their job; the chamber passed a CHIP funding bill back in November. But the proposal would have siphoned money from a preventive-care fund created under Obamacare. Unsurprisingly, given the fund’s provenance, Republicans have criticized how the fund’s money has been spent. In fact, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have used the fund to invest in vaccinations, diabetes programs and anti-tobacco efforts. Reprogramming its money to fund CHIP would rob Peter to pay Paul. Democrats rightly objected, leading to the current impasse.
It is possible that CHIP will feature in a big compromise funding package that keeps the government open, raises unrelated federal spending caps and perhaps even determines the fate of the “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they were children. The sooner Congress settles all of these issues, the better.
Yet the fact would remain: Funding CHIP should be routine business, and it has instead been over the past year a desperate, last-minute mess. Politicians often decry Washington “dysfunction” when what they really mean is that their party cannot get its own way. But to much of the public, it is episodes such as the CHIP debacle that are the problem.