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Advocates for children's health insurance program await action from Congress

| Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, 10:48 p.m.
Joan Benso, president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children: 'If we get to November and it’s not done, then we’ll get pretty concerned.'
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Joan Benso, president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children: 'If we get to November and it’s not done, then we’ll get pretty concerned.'

As Congress debated another attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act last week, legislators failed to meet a deadline to pay for the Children's Health Insurance Program, creating uncertainty for a program that draws bipartisan support nationally and in Pennsylvania.

The 176,000 children enrolled in Pennsylvania won't see any immediate effects from Congress' failure to approve another round of funding by the Sept. 30 deadline. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services says Pennsylvania's program has enough money to continue operating until February.

That provides a grace period larger than some other states have: Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and the District of Columbia are expected to exhaust their funds in December, according to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission.

"If we get to November and it's not done, then we'll get pretty concerned," said Joan Benso, president and CEO of advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. "Insurers will be in the position in December of being pretty darn nervous."

Benso said she was feeling optimistic, though, that legislators will take action soon on what's been a popular program. Seventeen of Pennsylvania's 18 U.S. House members signed a letter last week to the chamber's top leaders in support of the program and urging a vote.

By Friday afternoon — hours before the deadline — committees in both the House and Senate had said they plan to work on bills next week to renew the program's funding.

Several Pennsylvania legislators expressed disappointment and frustration that CHIP, as the program is commonly referred to, was left on the back burner.

"The states are not going to run out of money, but that doesn't excuse Congress for not doing its job," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, which includes Lehigh County and part of Northampton County.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton, who co-sponsored a Senate bill introduced in mid-September to extend the program, said he was "deeply disappointed" it wasn't renewed yet. He directed blame at last week's last-ditch effort at passing an Obamacare repeal bill before a procedural deadline that increased the number of votes needed for approval, saying he hoped that now Congress "can act quickly to pass this important legislation."

CHIP provides health insurance to 9 million children nationally whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance. It covers doctor visits, prescriptions, dental care and other services, at no cost for some and a low cost for others, depending on household size and income.

Pennsylvania's CHIP program predates the national one, which began in 1997. The state's version was created in 1992, and funded at that time by a 2-cent tax on packs of cigarettes.

Today, the program is jointly funded through the state and federal governments. Washington has picked up a larger share of the tab since the Affordable Care Act was passed, with the federal portion covering almost 90 percent of the cost.

That would change in future years under the legislation awaiting a Senate hearing this week. The bill would extend the program's funding through 2022, but it would slowly reduce the federal share to what it was before the ACA by the end of that five-year period.

As federal legislators sort out CHIP's fate, state legislators will be watching to see how long Congress renews the program's federal funding that pays for a large portion of CHIP's costs. Pennsylvania officials must act to reauthorize the state's program by the end of December.

"Any uncertainty in Washington doesn't help that," said Antoinette Kraus, director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.

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