Funding for CHIP remains in limbo

Nearly 4,000 kids in county have health coverage via program

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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A program that provides low-cost health coverage for nearly 4,000 Clark County kids is in limbo, and most families who rely on the program are unaware of its uncertain future.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, is a partnership between federal and state governments to provide health care for children whose families don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford to purchase a health plan. Federal funding for the program expired Sept. 30, and Congress has failed to reauthorize funding for the program, which historically has had strong bipartisan support.

For the last three months, Washington has received redistributed funding — grant money other states didn’t use — to keep the program afloat and ensure the state’s 52,000 children covered by CHIP don’t lose their health coverage. But because of the way the state administers the program, most families aren’t aware that the future of their child’s health care is reliant on Congress taking action — and soon.

“We were assuming and hoping it would be funded like it always has been,” said Mary Wood, assistant director of the division for Medicaid eligibility and community support at the Washington Health Care Authority, which oversees the program. “It’s fair to say we’re disappointed.”

“We’re hoping and wishing they would act sooner rather than later,” she added.

Apple Health

In Washington, CHIP provides health coverage for children whose families make between 210 and 312 percent of the federal poverty level. Children in families with household incomes below 210 percent of the poverty level are covered by the Medicaid program.

CHIP provides coverage identical to that of children with Medicaid — medical, dental and vision coverage — except CHIP families pay a small monthly premium, either $20 or $30 per child. That premium is the main way families can identify their child as a CHIP beneficiary, Wood said. Both programs are referred to as Apple Health.

“That was by design,” she said.

Rather than have families submit applications for various programs, the Health Care Authority has families apply for coverage, and state officials sort out which program will fund the child’s coverage, Wood said.

Funding for CHIP is split between the federal and state governments. Federal dollars cover 88 percent of the costs; the state pays 12 percent. In Washington, the federal contribution is about $10.3 million, Wood said.

If Congress doesn’t reauthorize ongoing funding for the program, the future of the program could be in jeopardy. The Health Care Authority will turn to the state legislature and the governor for direction, Wood said.

“At the end of the day, it would mean we would have to come up with additional state dollars,” she said.

The state has not yet sent letters to warn families that their children may lose health coverage. State officials are optimistic the program will be funded, Wood said.

“We are waiting and hopeful,” she said. “I think most states feel hopeful because this has always been a very bipartisan program.”

Pushing Congress

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has for weeks been urging Congress to reauthorize funding for the program. Murray was an original co-sponsor of the legislation that enacted CHIP in 1997.

“Parents in my home state, and across the country, should not be up at night worrying about their child’s health care because Congress can’t get its work done,” Murray said in an Oct. 25 speech on the Senate floor. “That’s unacceptable.”

State officials have heard there may be legislation later this week that would continue budget negotiations, with a resolution coming Dec. 22. Those are two upcoming opportunities where CHIP funding could be renewed. Proposals out of the House and Senate included funding to extend CHIP for five years; the proposals differed in how to pay for the program.

“It’s shameful Senate Republicans let the deadline for this program pass, putting the well-being of millions of children on the back burner while they focused on tax cuts for the wealthy,” Murray said in a statement Tuesday. “With a budget deadline just days away, I will be doing everything I can to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire to renew this program, as well as a number of other priorities that are already past due.”