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Pennsylvania official warns CHIP program could end by late March without federal funding

Wes Venteicher
| Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, 6:03 p.m.
Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller

About 180,000 Pennsylvania children could lose health insurance early next year if Congress doesn't reauthorize spending for the Children's Health Insurance Program, according to Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller.

The state-administered program, known as CHIP, covers children whose families make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but who might not be able to obtain or afford private insurance.

Created two decades ago, the program had a history of bipartisan support until this year, when Republicans and Democrats in Congress disagreed over where to get the money to pay for it.

“I, for one, never expected us to be in a place where we were so close to seeing the CHIP program end,” Miller said Wednesday.

Miller has been holding events to raise awareness about the potential funding shortfall and plans to visit Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The program, which costs about $500 million a year in Pennsylvania, receives nearly 90 percent of its funding from the federal government.

The flow of federal dollars stopped Oct. 1 after Congress missed a deadline to continue funding CHIP programs across the country. If Congress doesn't approve funding, Miller estimates the cash-strapped state will have to end the program by the end of March.

“I don't see any way for the state to come up with the funding, so if the feds don't authorize that program, we are looking at just shutting the program down,” she said.

Once the department identifies exactly when the money will run out, it will send letters to families with the insurance 30 days before the program ends — an outcome Miller said she hopes to avoid. She said Pennsylvania has fared better than a handful of other states that have already sent out such notices and will have to restart their programs if Congress reauthorizes funding.

“Congress has just been busy giving tax breaks to people who may or may not need it instead of focusing on issues they need to focus on,” she said.

The Republican-led U.S. House passed a bill along party lines that would cut a public health program established under the Affordable Care Act and raise Medicare premiums on the program's highest-income recipients, according to the Associated Press. House Republicans said the moves could help free up money needed to continue funding CHIP programs across the country.

House Democrats opposed the proposal. They said cutting the public health program would reduce access to vaccines and opioid abuse programs and the Medicare changes would prompt people to drop coverage, undermining that program's finances and eroding political support for it, according to the AP.

The Senate has yet to take up the proposal.

Pennsylvania has yet to reauthorize the CHIP program at the state level. A reauthorization bill passed the state House and awaits a Senate vote. A spokeswoman for Senate Republican leadership said the chamber expects to reauthorize the program by the end of the year.

CHIP enrollment has been climbing in Pennsylvania. It has about 30,000 more enrollees now than it did two years ago, according to DHS data.

“For whatever reason, we do see enrollment going up,” Miller said. “For a lot of families, this is just a better way to cover their kids and a more economical way to cover them, and it's great coverage.”

Eligibility for the program varies based on family incomes and the ages of their children.

For a family of four making between $33,000 and $51,000 per year, children ages 6 to 18 can get free coverage. The qualifying income level is higher for younger children.

For a family of four making $51,000 to $77,000 per year, children ages 1 to 18 can get subsidized coverage.

Families of any size and income can buy the insurance at full price, which is about $387 a month per child, according to DHS data.

As of the end of 2016, the last time detailed data were available, the families of about 71 percent of children in the program paid nothing for the coverage. About 25 percent made subsidized payments, and about 3.6 percent paid full price, according to the data.

About 14,000 children in Allegheny County have coverage through CHIP, while about 5,000 do in Westmoreland County, according to DHS data.

“CHIP fills the gap, making sure children are getting the health care services that they need,” said Jamie Baxter, education policy director of Pittsburgh-based child advocacy organization Allies for Children.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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