As Republican lawmakers celebrate the passage of a tax bill that will make the wealthiest Americans richer, many lower-income families are faced with the real possibility that their children will soon lose their health insurance because Congress didn’t care enough to renew funding for it.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program has enjoyed bipartisan support since its creation in 1997. It covers about nine million kids from families who are not affluent by any stretch of the imagination but happen to earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. In the past, the program was typically reauthorized for five years with little controversy. Not this time. Republican leaders in Congress have been unwilling or unable to make CHIP, as the program is known, a priority since funding lapsed nearly three months ago. The situation has gotten so bad that families with young children who benefit from the program visited Capitol Hill this week to beg lawmakers to fund CHIP.
This has forced state governments, which run the program, to scramble. This week, officials in Alabama said they would drop the coverage of 7,000 children and freeze the program to new enrollees on New Year’s Day. That state would have to end its program, which serves 84,000 kids in total, on Feb. 1. Virginia told parents of 68,000 children that its program could end on Jan. 31. Connecticut, Colorado and other states have issued similar warnings. All told, 16 states will run out of CHIP funds by the end of January, and another 21 will run out of money by the end of March, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Republican lawmakers say they will eventually get around to reauthorizing CHIP. First, though, they insist that Democrats must agree to cut other spending to offset some of the cost of the program. For example, they have proposed raising Medicare premiums on affluent retirees and cutting spending on public health programs created by the Affordable Care Act. Democrats have rightly balked at such demands, especially since Republicans just passed a tax bill that will mostly benefit corporations and the wealthiest families in the country while adding more than $1.4 trillionto the federal deficit over the next 10 years. By contrast, CHIP costs just $14 billion a year, or $140 billion or more over a decade.
In dismissing concerns about the program, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah epitomized the degradation of so much of the Republican Party this year. Mr. Hatch, who helped create this program with Senator Edward Kennedy, said on the floor of the Senate, almost sneering sanctimoniously, “the reason CHIP’s having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore.” Mr. Hatch and his Republican colleagues had no trouble finding boatloads of money to cut taxes on real estate developers, hedge fund managers and corporate chief executives.
This much is clear: Many children stand to lose access to health care if Congress does not act soon. States do not have the wherewithal to bear the full cost of CHIP. While some families who rely on the program might be able to get insurance for their kids through an employer or from the insurance marketplaces created by the A.C.A., many kids will end up losing coverage. CHIP is free or costs much less than private insurance depending on family income and state.
Two Republican lawmakers, Senators Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins, on Wednesday signaled that Congress would not fund CHIP until early next year. Lawmakers are now expected to head out of town after they pass yet another short-term extension of the larger spending bill needed to avoid a government shutdown.
President Trump and his fellow Republicans were desperate to pass a tax bill by Christmas but seem unconcerned about the more urgent and important work of making sure children can get the health care they need. That will be quite a legacy.