Now Is the Time for Action on Children’s Health | Commentary

Posted February 2, 2015 at 2:06pm

Timing is everything, they say. And when it comes to extending federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, it’s absolutely true.

The last Congress didn’t get it done, but leaders on both sides of the Capitol committed to prioritizing action on CHIP early this year. Whether they can deliver is a test not only of the new Congress’ commitment to solving real problems for real people, but also of its ability to do anything of substance at all.

Why? Because CHIP is so bipartisan, so popular, so effective and so cost-effective that the only reason a funding extension wouldn’t happen early this year is the dysfunction of Congress itself.

CHIP has been bipartisan from the start, created in 1997 by a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president. A 2014 poll found support for extending CHIP funding throughout the political spectrum: 66 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of independents and 80 percent of Democrats favor extending CHIP. And two-thirds of voters who identified with the tea party backed extending CHIP funding.

CHIP enjoys broad bipartisan support from state leaders, too. Last fall, key congressional committees asked governors for input on CHIP. Eighty percent of governors responded, and nearly all of them urged Congress to extend CHIP funding. What’s more, even though the committees did not ask about timing, most governors took the initiative and urged timely action.

Governors support CHIP for the same reason parents do: CHIP works. The nonpartisan Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that though child poverty is much higher, the rate of uninsured American children is lower today than before the recession. And even with new coverage options, CHIP delivers the best value for the health insurance dollar. An analysis released this year by the respected health care actuarial firm Wakely Consulting found that, compared with the new Affordable Care Act plans, CHIP offers more child-specific care with much lower out-of-pocket costs. And as its name indicates, CHIP is designed for children, providing age-appropriate benefits such as dental coverage and access to mental health and substance abuse services, which are not always covered by private insurance.

Extending CHIP could cost very little. The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t released its score yet, but it reportedly pegs the federal budget impact of extending CHIP at just a few billion over 10 years.

So what’s the problem? The clock is ticking.

Federal funding for CHIP will expire on Oct. 1. But budget debates are beginning right now in statehouses all over the country, months before that federal deadline. In fact, in several states, legislative sessions will end as early as March. Without assurances from Capitol Hill, state leaders will feel pressure to propose waiting lists, eligibility caps or even termination of their CHIP programs. The results: untold thousands of children uninsured, increased Medicaid enrollment and children forced into exchange plans that offer less child-specific care and dramatically higher out-of-pocket costs. With every day Congress fails to act, the threat draws nearer.

State policymakers get it. That’s why Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert asked Congress to act “as soon as possible,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley urged “Congress to act soon,” and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked for action “in the next month or two.”

Herbert, on behalf of the National Governors Association, said again just last week, “Congress should act quickly to reauthorize and fund CHIP.”

CHIP is a bipartisan health care plan that works. It gives states lots of flexibility and represents a true private-public partnership. It responds to an urgent problem for real people in every state. It’s cost-effective. And it’s incredibly successful and overwhelmingly popular with voters.

There’s not another substantive item on the congressional agenda that’s that doable. Tax reform? The budget? Judicial confirmations? Not even close.

CHIP is a leading indicator of real change in Washington. If Congress acts early and decisively, sending a strong CHIP bill to the White House before the spring recess, it will send two important messages.

First, it will signal that Democrats and Republicans are still able to work together to solve real problems for real people.

Second, it will signal that the new Congress will defy expectations and move beyond government that careens from crisis to crisis.

Those are messages we — and millions of Americans — look forward to hearing.

Bruce Lesley is president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, a national bipartisan children’s advocacy organization. Ron Pollack is the executive director of Families USA, the national organization for health care consumers.