Congress discontinues health insurance for 400,000 poor Texas children

FILE - Child getting a shot (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Child getting a shot (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Congress failed to pass a bill continuing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, placing health insurance for millions of American children in limbo.

The individual states are picking up the tab for now, but can’t continue the program indefinitely. Lawmakers hope a fix is around the corner after $1 billion for the state of Texas, to help insure 400,000 children in the state, has not been continued.

Congress has prioritized a failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and emergency funding for states damaged by a string of hurricanes.

Nationwide, CHIP pays for health insurance for nearly 9 million children. That’s one out of every eight in the country. Locally, Austin Independent School District has 6,000 children who received health insurance through the CHIP program. Families, doctors and advocates worry the stopped funding will put children’s lives at risk.

Like any kid, 3-year-old Sofia Leon can be a handful. “Basically putting anything in their mouth. They’re having accidents at any time,” said her mother Roselia Leon.

Leon pays $50 a year for health insurance and federal taxpayers pick up the rest through CHIP.

“My concern is what if one day she ends up having to go to the emergency room for whatever reason it is and I’m going to be I’m stuck with not just a hundred dollars but a couple thousand dollars,” said Leon.

The big concern for Dr. Guadalupe Zamora is thousands of children won’t get check-ups and vaccinations that prevent life threatening diseases.

“Immunizations really, really help us keep those children out of hospitals. They don’t get pneumonia. They don’t get meningitis. They don’t get the hepatitis that they used to,” said Dr. Zamora, who runs a family clinic in east Austin.

Without those preventative measures, children in Austin will get sick and, at best, miss school he says.

“It’s a catastrophe because we need those children to be healthy,” said Dr. Zamora.

The CHIP program is a federal-state partnership. With the federal money gone, the state of Texas says it can only keep it going with reserve funds through January. Dr. Zamora and Roselia worry because that’s the height of cold and flu season.

Slow movement in Washington

The last time CHIP was continued was two years ago. This week, lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a solution.

Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee will take up a measure to continue the program. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, second in command of the US Senate, supports the 5-year extension and intends to take up the measure later this year.

“The time deadline for re-authorization may slip from Sept. 30 and be part of the year-end package of negotiations that we expect on or around Dec. 8,” said Cornyn in a statement.

A request for comment from Senator Ted Cruz has not yet been returned. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin and Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock have not responded.

A spokesperson for Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, says he supports the HEALTHY Kids Act which continues the program for five years as well. The House Energy and Commerce Committee could take that up as soon as Wednesday. However, either bill must pass both chambers. Nothing has passed so far.

The office of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, says he supported CHIP re-authorization last time it came to a vote and will weigh the legislation coming out of committee when it is considered on the House floor by all members.

A spokesperson for Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, says he “wants to make sure that funding for this program is not lapsed and our children receive proper health coverage. He looks forward to reviewing the bill after the Energy and Commerce Committee marks up legislation to reauthorize this program in the very near future.

The lone Democrat from Central Texas says a political crusade against the Affordable Care Act ate up legislative time and led to the funding being discontinued.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who supports the bill, says Congress “has ignored the health needs of vulnerable children. CHIP re-authorization is belatedly scheduled for committee action Wednesday. Republicans are jeopardizing CHIP by refusing to pay for it unless Medicare premiums are hiked for this non-Medicare purpose. The future of 394,000 Texas children remains at risk.”

Texas officials are concerned as well with the lapse in funding.

“HHSC believes CHIP is a critical part of the health care safety net in Texas. CHIP has a proven track record of success, stemming from its adherence to the fundamental principals of state administration flexibility, personal responsibility and innovation aimed at enhancing health outcomes,” wrote Cecile Erwin Young, the chief deputy executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services to the Children’s Health Coverage Coalition in late September.

HHSC predicts state funding will run out in February of 2018.

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