Congress Pressed to Fund Health Care Program for Low Income Families

RICHMOND (CN) – Governors and state officials around the country are warning recipients of a health care program for low income families that their benefits could dry up if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the popular program soon.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program was originally authorized by Congress in the late 1990s. It filled the gap for working families who couldn’t afford health insurance but made too much to be on Medicaid.

It currently insures about 9 million children and 370,000 pregnant women.

While the program is managed by states, the federal government covers about 70 percent of its costs. In fiscal year 2016, the federal contribution came to $14 billion, according to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, a nonpartisan legislative branch agency.

Funding for the program must be periodically reauthorized and earlier this fall Congress allowed that authorization to lapse.

Despite reports from The Commonwealth Fund and others suggesting a deal is close, a compromise bill on reauthorization has yet to make it to the Senate floor.

Concerned they’ll be unable to fill the funding gap if no action is taken soon, 12 governors, both Republican and Democrat, sent a letter to Congress this week outlining their concerns and urging federal lawmakers to get a deal done.

Meanwhile, Linda Nablo, chief deputy director of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services, sent a letter to all  program recipients in the Commonwealth instructing them to schedule appointments ahead of Jan 31, the date on which Virginia will run out of funds if the funds are not continued.

“We believe we had an obligation to inform them, since we don’t have funding after January 31, and the program will end then,” Nablo said in an interview with Courthouse News.

“We didn’t want to wait longer and say ‘guess what, your coverage is ending in a few weeks,'” she said.

Nablo went on to explain that her department planned to send out the letter on Dec. 1,  but Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked her to wait hoping Congress was about to address the funding issue.

When Congress didn’t act, Nablo directed the letter be sent out.

“We are spending money now and we are diverting resources from other priorities because if we have to shut this down it takes weeks of preparation,” she said

Among other things, she said, Virginia will have to adjust scores of contracts and the IT systems that handle and facilitate them, if the program dies.

But Republicans in the House and Senate claim these warnings are just a scare tactic to drum up resentment against them.

One of them is  Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, who says he disagrees with Nablo’s concerns and said McAuliffe and other Democrats were playing politics, knowing full well that Congress isn’t about to let the funds expire.

“They all know the program has been funded in the past and is being funded right now,” he said, pointing to a continuing resolution signed by President Trump last week that funded the government through December 22 and allowed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to change their funding formula to support needy states until CHIP is fully reauthorized. “Most of what we’re hearing [from constituents] has to do with the letters they are sending out, putting people on a more heightened alert for no reason,” Brat said.

But Nablo said she is curious why a program that has always enjoyed bipartisan support, remains in limbo at this late date.

“If everybody agrees about CHIP, why is it not being passed if not because it’s being politicized,” she said.

Jill Hanken, an attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said the people who benefit from the program would otherwise go uninsured and that will make it difficult for them to “get the preventive healthcare, prescription drugs, chronic medical treatment and emergency care they need.”

“The ball is in Congress’s court,” she said. “They need to take action immediately to authorize this program that is so critical for families across the country.”

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