The children who walk into my clinic deserve every opportunity to grow up strong and healthy, with access to any health-care services they may require.
FOR almost 20 years I have been privileged to work as a pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center. Our clinic serves primarily low-income children and families, many of whom are new immigrants or refugees and struggle with the medical and psychological challenges that disproportionately impact our most vulnerable communities.
My clinic offers a spectrum of acute care, preventive services, immunizations and mental-health resources. But, despite the challenges of safety-net care, I have never had to deny services to a child because they did not qualify for health insurance. In some cases, this was thanks to the hospital’s generous charity-care program.
But mostly, it was thanks to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, a program now at risk due to congressional inaction.
CHIP was created in 1997 with overwhelming bipartisan support. It provides block grants to states that allow them to extend their Medicaid program for low-income children to cover the “near-poor” in working families whose modest income disqualifies them from other support. With employment-based health insurance increasingly scarce and individual plans on the open market beyond the reach of most low-income families, CHIP is a vital lifeline to pediatric health care.
Here in Washington, Apple Health for Kids (our CHIP program) covered 66,517 children in 2016, an increase of 44 percent from 2015.
The program is credited with helping to drive the proportion of uninsured children in Washington to an all-time low of less than 3 percent. Nationally, 8.9 million children are covered by CHIP. The investment is a bargain. Children have relatively low total health-care costs, but timely well-child care, developmental screening, dental care, vision services and mental-health interventions pay off in child health today and healthier, more productive, better educated and stably employed adults in the future.
Unfortunately, CHIP is at risk. Its funding authority expired on Sept. 30 and Congress hasn’t passed new legislation yet to continue the program. And until funding is reauthorized, states will have to pay for ongoing expenses and may be forced to reduce or eliminate coverage. For Washington state, this means more than $200 million annually is at risk.
These funds were factored into the state’s biennial budget, so when remaining CHIP resources are exhausted (in early 2018) Washington, and every other state, will be forced to drop coverage or cut other programs to cover the shortfall. Neither choice is desirable and neither is inevitable. We can fix this easily.
Let’s ask Congress for a quick win on CHIP funding: Go back to the program’s bipartisan roots and provide stable, ongoing funding for another five years. The children who walk into my clinic deserve every opportunity to grow up strong and healthy, with access to any health-care services they may require. Today, they are among the 8.9 million young Americans counting on CHIP funding to do so.