It’s a Grinch-worthy irony that’s been noted daily by the press in recent weeks: While the GOP has seemingly tripped over itself to push through a massive tax break for corporations and the wealthy, the Children’s Health Insurance Program has languished without funding, forcing states to send cruelly timed holiday letters to families informing them that their child’s coverage may soon expire.
Despite an ongoing flood of heart-wrenching stories and editorials in the press, not to mention a Jimmy Kimmel late-night intervention, Congress seemed poised to leave town on Friday with no CHIP relief in sight. An estimated 1.9 million kids in 23 states stood to lose coverage in January. Neither the reality nor the optics looked good for Capitol Hill in recent days:
“Kids’ health insurance hangs in balance, and parents wonder what’s wrong with Congress,” a Washington Post headline read on Thursday. The New York Times’ headline served as a summation of parental desperation: “With Children’s Health Program Running Dry, Parents Beg Congress: ‘Do the Right Thing’”
Then, some movement: Late Wednesday, House Republicans proposed a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown and give CHIP yet another temporary funding extension. On Thursday, the Senate approved the bill, which would allocate nearly $3 billion to keep CHIP funded through March. All the while, Republicans yet again insisted a more permanent fix was still to come. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) told Politico:
“We’ve got to get this done, and it will happen next month for sure, no question about it. I have no doubt — you can remind me of those words next month.”
CHIP families and state program directors will be keen to remind Upton of his pledge. But considerable damage will already be done by then. The uncertainty is creating tremendous holiday stress for lower-income families who depend on the program. Cathy Caldwell, director of the Alabama Bureau of Children’s Health Insurance, gave a sense of the unfolding panic during a media call on Wednesday:
“Our phones are ringing off the walls. We have panicked families wondering what in the world they have as options. It’s very, very stressful here in Alabama.”
That kind of uncertainty and fear among enrollees could linger like a bad hangover, even if Congress does restore longer-term funding for the program. On that same media call earlier this week, Alabama’s Caldwell said, “It’s already negatively affecting our credibility — it will take us years and years to overcome it.”
That hit to CHIP’s reputation would be an unfortunate and unnecessary bit of collateral damage from D.C.’s broken legislative machine, all the more so since the program has seemed like a rare point of broad bipartisan agreement in a Congress more deeply partisan than ever before.
This week’s last-minute scramble to keep low-income children insured for another few months doesn’t quite feel like a Christmas miracle. But for the nearly 9 million children that depend on the program, it’s better than the coal stocking otherwise in store.