Supporters Push to Renew Federal Children’s Healthcare Funding

A variety of patchwork schemes could extend the program over the short term, but advocates argue full funding is of the essence

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With a week left before support is set to lapse, backers of a national children’s healthcare initiative are ramping up their campaign to ensure that the U.S. Congress provides sustained support for the popular program going into the new year.

Democratic officials — including U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) — joined healthcare advocates Wednesday to urge Republican leaders to back a multiyear funding extension for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which covers 8.5 million kids nationwide, including 113,000 in New Jersey. They also insisted the bipartisan program not become a bargaining chip in the struggle to finalize the GOP’s controversial tax-reform proposal.

Menendez and others said the reauthorization of CHIP spending should have happened months ago; the program — which costs $13.7 billion annually, 70 percent of which is covered by federal dollars — expired at the end of September. A resolution approved in October to fund the federal government until a final spending deal can be reached included a provision that allowed CHIP to continue, using any existing money, but that short-term extension will end on December 22.

The program was created more than two decades ago to provide Medicaid coverage to the children of working-poor adults who still earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

‘Back burner’

“It’s astounding to think that a program like CHIP …has been put on the back burner,” Menendez said Wednesday on a call with supporters, including representatives from New Jersey Citizen Action and Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “America’s health system should not be an afterthought, it should be a priority,” he said.

Wednesday’s call coincided with efforts by MomsRising, a national advocacy group based in Pennsylvania, which joined Democratic senators on Capitol Hill to push for the extension of CHIP and reauthorization of funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers, which also lost a federal funding stream this fall when Congress failed to act. Discussion of CHIP also surged online after comic Jimmy Kimmel called for renewal of the program on his nationally televised late-night show on ABC, earlier this week.

“I think we need to turn up the heat and the advocacy on both of these issues,” said Menendez, who has teamed up with several Republican senators to introduce a bill to extend CHIP funding for five years. The measure has yet to be put to a full vote.

Funds on hand

Most states have enough funding on hand to continue the CHIP program at least into the first quarter of 2018. New Jersey is among 19 states that could last until June. As such, the state continues to operate its program without changes, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

(According to an analysis by MACPAC, an independent government organization that tracks Medicaid, New Jersey expects to spend more than $470 million on CHIP in the coming year, has nearly $225 available from the current year, and could have access, through funding redistribution, to $61 million more.)

But several states — including Arizona and Minnesota — could run out of money this month, and officials in Colorado and Utah are already warning parents that coverage could be eliminated early next year. CHIP advocates note that these concerns could have been avoided if sustainable funding had been provided sooner.

For parents of with kids in CHIP, the anxiety is real, explained Francys Soto, a Trenton resident with several children in the program, including a 3-year-old who needs regular treatments. “What is going to happen to the children with chronic health conditions or life-threating disease who are sick right now?” Soto asked during the call with Menendez, adding, “Issues that should be a priority are being treated lightly.”

Providers like hospitals are also concerned about potential lapses in the program. Sean Hopkins, a senior vice president with the New Jersey Hospital Association, joined the call to thank Menendez for supporting CHIP and stressed the need to end the uncertainty involved with short-term funding. “Elimination of this valuable program will place healthcare services at risk for New Jersey’s most vulnerable children,” Hopkins said, urging Congress to extend funding for a full five years.

Menendez said several options for extending CHIP are under discussion — including two-year deals — but his preference would be to sustain full funding for another five years as part of the omnibus federal funding bill, which must be finished by the end of next week to avoid a government shutdown. (Congress could also approve another short-term continuing resolution when the existing one expires on December 22; the federal fiscal year began in October.)

A GOP-led effort to extend fiscal support for both CHIP and the FQHCs, which are facing a 70 percent reduction in a key federal funding stream, advanced along party lines in the U.S. House of Representatives in November. The bill would have provided $100 billion for the program over five years.

But the measure, which eliminated certain protections in the federal Affordable Care Act and would have added a charge for wealthier Medicare members, sparked significant Democratic opposition and has not advanced in the Senate.