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Florida delegation at the center of polarized vote to extend CHIP

Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, says the House-passed bill to extend the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program is “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

For two decades, children’s health insurance was the exception that proved the adage that Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on anything in Washington.

A vote Friday showed that even the fate of sick kids can be subject to partisan wrangling.

Every Florida Republican voted Friday morning for legislation that would extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program for five years. Just one Florida Democrat joined them, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park — exhibit zeta in the ongoing saga of Washington political gridlock.

HR 3922, which extended funding for two popular programs — CHIP, which provides health coverage for low-income kids, and funding for community health centers — passed 242-174 with just 15 Democratic votes.

But a vote along partisan lines makes the bill’s passage unlikely in the Senate, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said, calling the bill “dead on arrival” in that chamber because of the “very partisan” way it funds CHIP.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, was more bullish on the bill’s chances to pass the Senate. “I still am confident that we will get this signed into law before funding runs out in December,” he said.

Republicans would have to win over eight Democratic colleagues and lose no GOP votes to pass the House version of legislation without risking a filibuster. (A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legislation.)

Both Castor and Bilirakis decried the partisanship of the opposing party. The bickering is wearing on health experts.

“I’m very frustrated by the state of affairs,” said Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown’s Center for Children and Families. “This is not hard to get done. They already have bipartisan agreement on the policy in both chambers, which is highly unusual.”

Republicans and Democrats say they want to extend CHIP, which covers over 340,000 children in Florida. But they cannot agree on how the program should be funded. The extension passed by the House on Friday funds CHIP in part by raising Medicare premiums on the wealthy, by cutting the Affordable Care Act Prevention and Public Health Fund and by shortening the period during which consumers can pay late premiums from 90 to 30 days.

Castor said the latter two cuts constituted more dangerous Republican attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Bilirakis said the pay-fors “reflect sound public policy positions.”

Castor said she supported other funding mechanisms that might have given CHIP legislation a chance at more bipartisan passage. For example, she said, she would be open to funding CHIP by tweaking the payment process of the Medicare Advantage program.

“The Republicans really did not want to get into CHIP negotiations and pay-fors in the first half of the year because they were so set on repealing the Affordable Care Act,” Castor said.

Bilirakis’s office disputed that.

“While the ACA Repeal/Replace may have garnered a great deal of public attention this year, the behind the scenes work on other health care priorities, including CHIP, Community Health Centers and combatting opioid abuse have been ongoing for many months,” deputy chief of staff Summer Robertson said.

Alker said that recent history showed how substantive CHIP discussions have been pre-empted by more pressing legislative authorities.

In September, Congress seemed to be working on a bill to extend CHIP, Alker said, when another ACA repeal plan, Graham-Cassidy, “came up and bumped CHIP off the agenda.”

Congress is currently considering a number of weighty proposals, including tax reform, how to address the expiration of DACA and year-end government funding.

Rebecca Matthews, the CEO of Florida Healthy Kids Corporation, which runs the CHIP program for the bulk of Florida recipients, said she is optimistic Congress will fund CHIP.

“We are happy to see the progress made in the U.S. House of Representatives today and remain optimistic Congress will soon reauthorize federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which will ensure the availability of affordable health insurance for Florida’s children,” she said in a statement.

If the federal government does not reach an agreement by the end of January, Florida’s CHIP program — which depends on the federal government for 96 percent of its funding — will run out of money.