It’s been 82 days since Congress let funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program expire. For months legislators have promised the public they would get it done — certainly by end of the year — working on a deal that would reauthorize the program for the next five years, at the cost of $8 billion.
But in a stunning turn of events, the House of Representatives released a continuing appropriations bill Wednesday that would keep the government open and extends CHIP funding only until the end of March, at the extraordinary cost of $2.8 billion. In order to avoid a government shutdown, legislators have until midnight on Friday to fund the government.
In addition to shorting CHIP, the bill also does not grant legal protections to so-called Dreamers, children brought to the United States without documents whose legal status is in jeopardy. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been pressing Republicans to include the DREAM Act as part of the spending measure. Without it, Republicans will need to find the votes to keep the government open on their own.
Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi told The Intercept that Democrats are whipping their members to vote against the continuing resolution.
CHIP is a decades-old, federally funded program that makes health insurance available to families whose incomes are modest, but too high to qualify for Medicaid. It’s long had strong bipartisan support, providing coverage to almost 9 million kids and 370,000 pregnant women.
“This may go down as the worst year for children in Congress in decades,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group. “We are distraught for the families and nearly 9 million children who rely on CHIP for their health care. This action shows Congress’s failure to prioritize and protect children and a very popular and successful program. It needlessly leaves states and families left in limbo.”
Whether Democrats would refuse to vote on a continuing resolution that extends CHIP funding for only three months remains unclear. In a Politico-Harvard poll released this month, Democratic voters said CHIP is their top legislative priority. Another Morning Consult/Politico poll showed that when voters were asked if CHIP reauthorization was important enough to prompt a government shutdown, 42 percent answered “yes definitely” and 25 percent answered “yes, maybe.” Among Democrats, 53 percent answered “yes definitely” and 24 percent answered “yes, maybe.”
The stakes for kids and expectant mothers are already sky-high. In a report released yesterday, researchers at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families found that if Congress does not reauthorize CHIP soon, about 1.9 million children could lose health insurance coverage in January. Several states, including Utah, Connecticut, and Virginia, have already sent out notices to inform CHIP enrollees that their coverage could end January 31. Georgetown researchers report that another 1 million children are at risk of losing their coverage by the end of February.
Earlier this week, Alabama’s CHIP director announced that unless Congress acts soon, the state plans to freeze CHIP enrollment on January 1. (There are currently 84,000 children enrolled in the state, who also stand to lose coverage by the end of January.) History reveals that even temporary enrollment freezes can lead to major drops in coverage. Arizona’s enrollment fell by more than 60 percent when the state temporarily froze the program in 2009, and North Carolina’s enrollment fell by nearly 30 percent when it froze CHIP for 10 months in 2001.
Colorado, which is also set to end its CHIP program at the end of January if Congress doesn’t reauthorize funding, has informed pregnant women who are scheduled to give birth in February that their health insurance will expire before they deliver.
Erin Miller, the vice president of health initiatives with the Colorado Children’s Campaign told Public News Service that lapses in CHIP coverage could be financially devastating for families. “If they have a lapse in coverage and say their kid has asthma, and that kid can’t get their meds, has to go to the emergency room and ends up admitted – that possible admission would cost them everything they have,” she said.