Congress Screwed Up Children’s Health Care—And May Not Fix It Any Time Soon

Nine million kids depend on CHIP, which lawmakers haven’t funded. And aides worry that a resolution isn’t coming soon.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Nearly a month after a deadline came and went to fund a program that provides health care to nearly 9 million children in the United States, congressional Democrats are growing resigned and fearful that the issue won’t get resolved until the end of the year.

Congress failed to reauthorize funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) prior to the deadline at the end of September. That left many states having to scramble to determine how funding could be maintained for recipients for the remainder of the year and beyond.

Progress has been made on two separate bills—one in the House and one in the Senate—to reauthorize funding this month. But the concern expressed by Democrats on the Hill is that the rush to pass a bill through the House, which is viewed as the more partisan effort to break the logjam, could end up impeding progress more than it streamlines it.

Ultimately, for a CHIP authorization to pass, several hurdles must be cleared. Both the House and the Senate have to pass their respective pieces of legislation. The two chambers have to hammer out their differences in conference. And then each chamber has to vote again on the final, agreed-upon product. A partisan House bill makes it harder to bridge the divide, Democrats warn, since Democratic votes will likely be needed for final passage. But GOP leadership appears intent on going down that route.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announced on Thursday that the House bill, the HEALTHY KIDS Act, will go the floor for a vote next week. In rationalizing the timing of the vote, McCarthy blamed Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee for failing to expedite negotiations.

But Democrats on the committee, specifically ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), say that Republicans have not been even-handed in discussions and that the bill they introduced was destined to be objectionable because it diverts funding from the Affordable Care Act to pay for the program.

The bill, which passed in the Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month with no support from Democrats, would cut funding from the ACA’s public health fund and charge increased premiums for Medicare beneficiaries who make more than $500,000 annually. Additionally, it would cut down the grace period for ACA enrollees who miss a monthly premium payment from 90 days to 30 days, according to a Democratic aide on the committee. A House Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that few if any Democrats will vote for the legislation next week when it goes before the entire chamber.

“By bringing a partisan bill to the floor, House Republicans are virtually guaranteeing that these essential programs will not be reauthorized until the end of the year,” Pallone charged in a statement to The Daily Beast on Thursday.

Pallone’s contention is shared by advocates, who are hoping to broker an agreement among House members before a vote. Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a nonpartisan advocacy organization with a specific focus on children, told The Daily Beast that he had met with House Republicans and Democrats on Thursday in the hopes of kickstarting a dialogue.

“We’re definitely very worried that a final bill won’t happen until December,” Lesley said. “If that’s the case, there will be all kinds of chaos.”

Absent that agreement, lawmakers are looking at an additional weeks, if not months, of potential negotiations between the House and Senate, which is crafting a CHIP bill of its own.

That bill, the Keeping Kids’ Insurance Dependable and Secure (KIDS) Act, passed through the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month. It was drafted by CHIP’s co-creator Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and would extend funding for the program for five years. The hitch, however, is that the offsets for funding have yet to be determined.

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A staffer in Wyden’s office told The Daily Beast that the senator is “disappointed that the House has made CHIP partisan” but that they are actively working in the Senate to get CHIP passed as soon as possible. Hatch’s office similarly described a bipartisan process of determining offsets for funding of the program and did not directly respond to a question about the House bill going to the floor next week.

“I am proud of my work with Ranking Member Wyden to extend the program’s funding for five years and provide certainty for families and states,” Hatch said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.

With every week that passes, states are having to improvise their funding streams. Minnesota was previously given a $3.6 million lifeline from the Centers of Medicare & Medicaid Services to cover CHIP for the remainder of October. And on Friday, the Minnesota Department of Human Services said they expect to receive an estimated additional $1 million in November.

More states may end up having to be bailed out if there is no reauthorization by the end of the year.

“Funding for the children’s health insurance program expired 27 days ago,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told The Daily Beast in a statement. “I’m very concerned that, every day, more and more children in Michigan and across the country won’t be able to see a doctor or get the care they need. There is no reason why we can’t act immediately to extend funding and protect health care for children and families across the country.”