A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Focusing on a bad tax reform bill meant Congress had no time for kids, thus no CHIP funding

The Republican Congress has proven so busy handing the keys of the kingdom over to its corporate bosses through its abominable tax reform bill – while simultaneously picking the pockets of graduate students, the middle class and too many others to mention – that it has had little patience for dealing with the needs of sick children.

While GOP lawmakers were busily giggling and patting each other on the back over a tax measure that will add at least $1 trillion to the national debt, make sure the rich get richer and the poor get poorer as the old song goes, and tosses a monkey wrench into Obamacare, nothing has been done about the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which officially saw its funding screech to halt with the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.

CHIP, as it is popularly known, is a joint state-federal program created in 1997 for families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but not high enough to afford private coverage. While Medicaid assists 37.1 million children, CHIP safeguards 8.9 million kids under the age of 19 who hail from low-income families. The two programs together have reduced the uninsured rate of children in America to only 5 percent.

The program, is particularly important in states like Kentucky, which, as we all know too well, is among the nation’s poorest. Kentucky Youth Advocates reports that one-quarter of the commonwealth’s children live below the federal poverty level and almost half reside in homes considered low income. It should come as no surprise then that as of September Kentucky has enrolled 1,260,001 individuals in Medicaid and CHIP.

In other words, thousands of Kentucky’s poorest kids who might otherwise go without necessary health care benefit from CHIP.

But the program’s status is in peril. CHIP received $14.4 billion in federal funds during the 2016 fiscal year and in his proposed budget for 2018 President (GASP!) Trump sought to cut CHIP spending by $5.8  billion between now and 2019, a move that would naturally have devastating consequences. Several lawmakers, notably Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who represents the poorest part of the Commonwealth in Eastern Kentucky, pushed back against this idiocy.

Regardless, the entire CHIP issue was placed on the backburner while the GOP majority in the House and Senate sought to pulverize American health care in a different way – through an unsuccessful effort to kill Obamacare. When that endeavor flopped, lawmakers somehow forgot to perform an insignificant little task like pass a budget for FY 2018, essentially leaving the program without new funding and wracking havoc within participating states.

The states are relegated to using leftover federal funds from their FY2017 CHIP allotment to keep their programs alive. But once those funds are exhausted no monies will be available unless Congress acts. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation about three-quarters of states anticipate exhausting their funding by the end of March 2018. Several states have begun or will begin notifying families about coverage reductions before the end of 2017.

“As such, further delay in Congressional action is likely to result in confusion among families that could lead to coverage losses and administrative costs even if funding is extended in the next few weeks,’’ KFF said.

It’s a particular problem for Kentucky. State government put together its current two-year budget, which already has faced shortfalls, based on the assumption that the federal government would continue to fund CHIP and retain an advanced matching funds program implemented to convince states to adopt the program. We’re talking about millions of dollars to a cash-strapped state.

The commonwealth expects to exhaust funding sometime in February.

Under the direction of Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, the Senate is preparing a temporary funding measure to keep the federal government operating through Dec. 22. It’s necessary because the Senate somehow missed the deadline for approving an FY 2018 budget by going on three months now – something ol’ Mitch promised wouldn’t occur during his hilariously incompetent leadership tenure.

After all, depriving millions of health insurance and picking the pockets of working folks to further enrich the wealthy and corporations, descending the nation further into oligarchy, requires a lot of effort, leaving little time to adopt a necessary spending plan.

Regardless, appearing on “This Week,’’ ABC’s Sunday talk-a-thon, Root-and-Branch said steps will be taken to temporarily lift certain spending constraints, allowing states to get more CHIP money from the federal government for at least a couple more weeks.

The whole thing is a bloody mess. Families currently receiving CHIP assistance are understandably beginning to worry that a program that helps keep their kids healthy may be about to crash. Then what? And states that put their budgets together anticipating millions of dollars from the federal share of the program are calling on their numbers people to develop a method for closing the looming revenue gap.

It ain’t, as they used to say, any way to run a railroad. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who has long since passed his sell-by date, expressed concern that, after the mega-billions giveaway in the tax cut package – which was so poorly written under Mitch’s watch that it could wind up depriving Corporate America of some of the tax advantageous it was salivating over – won’t leave a whole lot for CHIP.

After praising the program – Hatch authored the original measure – he went on to say, “The reason CHIP is having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore. We just add more and more spending and more and more spending, and you can look at the rest of the bill for the more and more spending.’’

It apparently didn’t occur to the good senator that the $1 trillion added to the deficit as a result of the atrocious tax cut bill he voted for is the real reason CHIP is scratching around for dough.

In no time flat, Senate Republicans held only meaningless committee hearings on the tax cut bill, passed it in a single marathon session lasting until 2 am without providing lawmakers an ample opportunity to read the terrible thing, added hand-written additions to it that were barely legible and wound up passing one of the worst pieces of garbage in the history of the republic in the wink of an eye.

Meanwhile, a children’s health care program that aids millions of low-income Americans, around since 1997, was allowed to expire and the same greatest deliberative body in history that whizzed through the tax cut measure can’t get it together to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

If that doesn’t describe the cancer that has attacked the body politic, nothing does.

Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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