GOP rushed to pass tax bill, but likely won’t fund Children’s Health Insurance Program until 2018

1.9 million children could lose health coverage in January with continued inaction

On Wednesday, Senate lawmakers reneged on their promise to include funding for children of low-income families in the short-term government funding bill, exacerbating the already dismal situation for the millions of children who rely on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Susan Collins (R-ME) said they do not expect to appropriate long-term funding until next year. It’s been 81 days since Congress missed the original deadline to refinance the program.

Screenshot of Sen. Lamar Alexander's press release
Screenshot of Sen. Lamar Alexander's press release

CHIP provides low-cost health insurance to a total of about nine million children nationwide and, in 20 states, pregnant people also qualify for coverage. The program is jointly financed by state and federal government, and federal money accounts for a larger share.

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“For years there has been bipartisan effort to get kids covered through CHIP and Medicaid. Now it is being eroded by Congressional inaction,” said Joan Alker, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families on Twitter. The center published a report Wednesday that said if Congress fails to approve long-term funding, 1.9 million children who depend on CHIP could lose coverage by the end of January.

Children most at risk of losing coverage live in states where officials created a separate CHIP program, as opposed to one that is an expansion of its Medicaid program. States that fall into this category are permitted to shut down CHIP coverage if federal funding runs out. Alabama has a combination program and has said it will freeze enrollment starting on January 1, 2018.

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“The freeze is to stop the flow of incoming children,” Cathy Caldwell, the director of the Bureau of Children’s Health Insurance Programs in Alabama, recently told ThinkProgress.

The Alabama CHIP program, ALL Kids, will end in February if Congress fails to renew funding next month. About 84,000 children are at risk of losing coverage in February. Now that Congress won’t move on CHIP until January, Alabama will likely drop 7,000 children on New Year’s Day.

State officials have had to warn affected families of potential terminations. Colorado and Virginia sent letters to families telling them the program might terminate next year. About six states — Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Texas, Utah, and Virginia — have decided they’ll end the programs, which provide insurance to families that don’t qualify for Medicaid.

While some senators still say Congress can pass a CHIP funding bill by the end of the year, their priorities seemed clear. On Wednesday afternoon, Congress passed a major tax overhaul largely benefiting the wealthy, delaying action on CHIP funding and creating a nightmare scenario for state officials and families who are anxiety-ridden this holiday season.

Political bickering about how to fund CHIP and community health centers — which also missed out on new funding in September — is at the crux of all this. Similar to CHIP, community health centers facilitate primary and dental care to low-income people.

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“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has projected that the national impact of the loss of funding will close 2,800 health center locations, eliminate more than 50,000 jobs, and result in loss of access to care for more than 9 million patients,” said the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) in a statement.

Congress has 11 days to ensure people who rely on CHIP and centers continue to get served next year.