Funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program has expired, but that shouldn’t affect Florida — for now.
That’s the message from health advocates, lawmakers and nonprofits in charge of administering the federal funds this week as Congress begins to find a way to restore funding to the 20-year-old health insurance program that covers 340,000 Florida kids.
Summer Robertson, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email that Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, “believes there is no cause for concern, as plans are in place to pass a bill long before continued funding of the program is actually impacted.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Bilirakis is a member, approved — in a party line vote — legislation Wednesday that would fund CHIP in exchange for marginal cuts to certain entitlement programs. For instance, under the Republican proposal, wealthier seniors would pay higher Medicare premiums.
But those changes did not sit well with committee Democrats like Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who said Republicans did not try to negotiate the new CHIP funding structure before putting it up for a vote.
“To pay for it, rather than negotiate and come up with some bipartisan ‘pay-fors,’ they went to Medicare and Medicaid for cuts,” Castor said. “And that’s not reasonable.”
Robertson said that Bilirakis “believes the pay-for provisions in the bill that passed out of committee are reflective of responsible public policy.”
Federal funding is pivotal to Florida CHIP recipients. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, the U.S. government covered about 96 percent of the $686.6 million Florida spent in 2017 to cover children in families earning too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford unsubsidized health insurance.
Still, both Bilirakis and Castor said the wrangling likely wouldn’t be severe enough to threaten funding for Florida families. Even if Congress takes a while to renew CHIP, Florida has enough leftover federal money to run the program through January 2018.
Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown’s Center for Children and Families, said she was “cautiously optimistic” that Congress would work out a bipartisan CHIP extension.
The Senate Finance Committee passed legislation similar to the House bill Wednesday, but party leaders failed to agree on how the government would pay for CHIP going forward — a point of contention that could delay the effort to renew the program.
“On the actual CHIP policy, it looks like the House and the Senate are in the same place, and that’s good,” Alker said. However, Alker cautioned, “they need a bipartisan deal ... on how to pay for it.”
A spokesperson for Florida Healthy Kids, a nonprofit that oversees the largest state CHIP program, said in a statement, “We remain optimistic that Congress will soon reauthorize CHIP and continue to make affordable health insurance possible for Florida’s children.”
Advocates share that optimism, but also say an agreement on CHIP funding needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Melanie Hall, the executive director of Covering Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that helps Tampa Bay families apply for government healthcare programs, said she would be concerned if Congress failed to extend CHIP by November.
“Everyone seems to feel optimistic that this is going to move forward in a bipartisan way, and relatively quickly,” Hall said. “In a month, we’ll have a different conversation.”