176,000 Pennsylvania children's health care at risk as CHIP funding lapses

Jason Addy
York Dispatch
LOGO medical

As Republican lawmakers made one final push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act at the end of September, federal funding expired for almost 9 million children and teens covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

Congress took no action to reauthorize the federal program by the Sept. 30 deadline, leaving more than 176,000 Pennsylvanians at risk of losing their health insurance if lawmakers do not fund the program within the next few months, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Jenny Englerth, president and CEO of Family First Health

Since CHIP's inception in 1997, the reauthorization of CHIP funding has been an easy initiative that generally has wide bipartisan support, said Jenny Englerth, president and CEO of Family First Health, a community-based health center with locations in York, Lancaster and Adams counties.

More:EDITORIAL: Congress lets the CHIP fall

'No-brainer': The Children’s Health Insurance Program provides free or low-cost health insurance options for children in families who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but do not have access to health coverage through other means. 

A family of four with an income of up to $51,168 can receive free CHIP insurance for their children, while a family of four with an income of up to $77,244 qualifies for low-cost CHIP insurance, according the state Department of Human Services.

More:GOP health bill all but dead; McCain again deals the blow

“CHIP is a no-brainer,” Englerth said, because it allows children and teenagers access to comprehensive medical care, including emergency medical, dental and preventative care, while saving money over the long run.

But with Congress focused on undoing former President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, she said she worries lawmakers have forgotten why CHIP and other health care expansions have been enacted over the past 25 years. 

While they’re right to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently, lawmakers are missing the mark by allowing CHIP funding to lapse, Englerth said. 

“The most efficient way we can spend health care dollars as a country is to make sure that everyone has easy access to primary and preventative care,” she said.

Without access to health coverage, uninsured people are likely to delay or avoid medical care and treat emergency rooms as a last resort for getting help, Englerth said.

“When someone doesn’t feel well, when they’re not healthy, everything else falters in their life,” she said. “They’re not going to come up with some magic cure on their own.”

'Stuck in the crosshairs': Pennsylvania has some funding in reserve, allowing the program to continue “without disruption” in the Keystone state until February 2018 for the 176,241 children who are covered by CHIP, according to the state Department of Human Services. 

More:House passes GOP budget with cuts to social programs

On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved the Keeping Kids’ Insurance Dependable and Secure Act, which would reauthorize CHIP funding for five years, while the House Energy and Commerce Committee considered a similar piece of legislation to extend funding.

PA Partnerships for Children

Despite lawmakers working to re-fund the program, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President and CEO Joan Benso said she’s not confident the federal money will come in before the state runs out of its reserves.

“I don’t think we should feel sure that Congress will conclude their work in a timely way,” she said. 

Benso said she believes CHIP funding “got stuck in the crosshairs of the bigger federal health care debate,” leaving states “in the lurch.”

“I think they let the clock tick out in another attempt to do repeal-and-replace and amend Medicaid again,” she said. 

If Congress doesn’t reauthorize CHIP funding, Pennsylvania children in the program will lose their health insurance — unless the lawmakers can fill the $385 million hole it will leave in the state’s budget, Benso said.

And with the state already three months late on passing a balanced 2017-18 budget, that seems nearly impossible, she said.

Rachel Kostelac, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, said officials are looking at ways to cut costs and stretch CHIP funds until the program is reauthorized, but no plans have been finalized yet. 

The department will notify CHIP recipients at least 30 days before the program ends if Congress doesn't reauthorize the program, she said.