Keeping children healthy is a priority on which even the most strident political opponents can agree. When Congress reconvenes for its lame duck session this week, it should vote to fund a federal program that helps provide health insurance for low-income children. Funding for the program is set to expire at the end of September 2015, but lawmakers cannot wait until then to act. Some states are already starting to put together their spending plans for 2015-16 budgets, and they need to know if they can count on federal support.
The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, was created in 1997 during the Clinton administration and approved by a Republican-controlled Congress. Lawmakers aimed to start a federal-state partnership in which the government would give money to states to create health plans for uninsured children. Nationwide, CHIP provides coverage for about 8 million children at a cost of about $10 billion a year. In Florida, CHIP helps fund Florida KidCare, which covers medical expenses including doctor visits, prescriptions, dental care and mental health care.
KidCare has four distinct categories ranging from Medicaid to heavily subsidized insurance plans for parents who meet income qualifications. More than 415,000 Florida children benefit from CHIP's annual contribution, which topped $380 million in 2014, according to First Focus, a children's advocacy organization that is leading lobbying efforts for continued CHIP funding.
Recently, 1,200 health care advocates sent a letter to congressional leaders asking that lawmakers fund CHIP for another four years. The signers, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the Children's Defense Fund, say the issue needs lawmakers' attention now. The groups say it is imperative that children continue to receive medical and dental care in their developmental years and fear that without CHIP, the portion of children without health insurance coverage could rise to levels before the program began. Adventist Health System, All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine and St. Joseph's Children's Hospital are among the bay area entities that signed the appeal.
Often a lame-duck Congress accomplishes little between the November election and the start of a new Congress in January. But this year, children can't afford business as usual. Lawmakers should not allow petty politics or a lack of will to block such an important program for America's youth. Congress should move now to allocate money for the health care program, and lawmakers should ensure its survival for at least four years. Doing so would allow both states and parents to budget for children's health care needs.
Since its inception, CHIP has helped reduce the number of uninsured children by 50 percent. That is a laudable accomplishment, and public health officials should strive to further reduce the numbers of children without insurance. Providing access to health care for children of all income levels is a worthy investment. Lawmakers should step up and make it happen.