Lawmakers press for funds for children’s insurance

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan lawmakers are pushing Congress to reauthorize federal funding that pays for health insurance for nearly 9 million children, including 116,000 lower-income children in Michigan, before year’s end.

Congress let the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) lapse Sept. 30, and Republicans and Democrats haven’t agreed on how to pay for a five-year extension – even though both sides agree it’s needed.

Some states that are nearly out of money are preparing to freeze enrollment or cancel CHIP coverage if lawmakers don’t soon reach a deal.

In Michigan, CHIP funding is projected to last until April or May without action by Congress.

State officials could begin sending cancellation notices in January to meet a 60-day notification requirement, said Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“At this point we don’t have anything planned,” Minicuci said. “We’re waiting to see what goes through, if anything. But our contingency planning, if you will, is that we’re aiming to send out notices in January at the earliest.”

Michigan’s program uses CHIP funding to support several programs, including coverage for certain children on Medicaid and mothers who are undocumented immigrants.

CHIP also provides health insurance for an expanded pool of people younger than 21 who drank lead-contaminated water from Flint since April 2014, as well as any pregnant women who were served the water, and the children born to them.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, on Wednesday accused Republican leaders of “literally putting coal in the stockings of families.”

“CHIP is one that we cannot play games with,” Lawrence said at a news conference of the Democratic Women’s Working Group at the U.S Capitol.

“We need to support millions of families who rely on this program. This is not the right way.”

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, on Wednesday echoed the call for CHIP funding to be extended without further delay, but suggested Democrats are behind the holdup.

“Many low-income children and families across Michigan depend on CHIP for their health care needs,” said Walberg, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Last month, the House voted in a bipartisan fashion to fully fund CHIP, and it’s unfortunate that Democrats are playing politics with this important public health program.”

The Republican-led House did pass legislation in early November reauthorizing the program for five years, but a majority of Democrats voted against the bill. They disagreed with what GOP leaders used to off-set the cost of the program.

Democrats objected in part to charging higher Medicare premiums to older Americans with incomes over $500,000 a year and to cutting down the three-month grace period for Obamacare enrollees who fall behind on premium payments.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that 259,000 to 688,000 people could lose their insurance as a result of reducing grace period to 30 days.

Republicans have noted an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that fewer than 1 percent of Medicare beneficiaries would have been affected by the change for wealthier recipients had it been in effect this year, meaning an individual would have paid roughly $135 more a month.

At an October hearing, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, stressed the importance of extending funding for CHIP and for community health centers. He said the pay-fors were reasonable, including the proposal to increase income-based Medicare premiums.

“Folks that earn half a million dollars a year and are over 65 can afford to pay a little more for Medicare. And you know what? If they don’t want to pay, they don’t have to enroll. That’s a choice that they will have,” Upton said during the markup of the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, on Wednesday criticized Republicans for insisting on offsets for CHIP while backing tax cuts that could add trillions of dollars to federal deficits.

“CHIP ensures every child can go to the doctor when they need to and receive necessary checkups and immunizations,” Dingell said in a statement. “It has always been bipartisan, and there is no reason it should not be today.”

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, said last week that the CHIP extension will be included in the short-term government funding bill to be considered by lawmakers later this week.

“It’s incredibly frustrating it’s taken so long and such great lengths to fund this historically bipartisan program, but we are encouraged that we are now a step closer to seeing this critical extension become law,” Walden said last week in a statement with Texas Rep. Michael C. Burgess, who chairs the panel’s Health Subcommittee.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, have also pressed for action on CHIP.

Stabenow helped with an agreement that passed the Senate Finance Committee in October to reauthorize CHIP for five years, but how to pay for it has also been an issue in that chamber.