As Money for Health Coverage for Pregnant Women and Children Dwindles, Lawmakers and Advocates Press Congress

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About 32,000 pregnant women and children in California could lose health coverage in March if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program before then.

While most of California’s CHIP recipients are guaranteed health insurance through September 2019 by federal law, 32,000 don’t have such protections because they are undocumented or their income is too high for full Med-Cal, the state’s low-income health program.

Statewide, 1.3 million pregnant women and children are covered by CHIP.

CHIP is a federal-state partnership and each state is given some flexibility about how to administer the program. In California, the program is folded into Medi-Cal. The majority of people enrolled in CHIP have a Medi-Cal card.

CHIP was created to ensure that pregnant women and children have health coverage when they need it most. The program is founded on research that shows that a number of children’s health problems can be prevented if a pregnant mother or young child has access to medical care.

If CHIP isn’t renewed before funding runs out sometime in mid-March, California would have to make up an amount “approaching half a billion dollars” to cover the lost federal funds, according to state Sen. Richard Pan’s office.

Pan said the money would have to come from the state’s general fund and would force legislators into making difficult choices even though most want to continue the coverage.

“There are many competing priorities in the budget for these very same families,” he said.

Anthony Wright, executive director of the California advocacy group Health Access said legislators would have to decide between cutting “child care or other social services,” to fund CHIP.

“Cuts of that size mean you’re literally choosing among your children,” he said.

CHIP expired Oct. 1 and has fallen by the wayside as Congress has concentrated on tax reform and attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

CHIP has broad support from both Republicans and Democrats but has been held up in disagreements over how to fund it. Democrats have objected to Republicans’ proposals to cut preventative care and Medicare to help fund the program.

In December, Congress approved a short-term fix of $2.85 billion to fund the program for the nation as a whole through March. A five-year reauthorization would cost $14.5 billion a year nationwide.

Congressional leaders now say that CHIP reauthorization could be included as part of a deal to continue to avoid a federal government shutdown by the deadline this Friday. But there is no guarantee CHIP will be included.

Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Richvale, who represents rural northern California up to the Oregon border, said he is dismayed that CHIP has been caught up in partisan hype. He believes the program will ultimately be extended.

“We understand this is an important lifeline to communities that have a tougher row to hoe in lower socioeconomic areas,” he said.

Congressman Jeff Denham, a Republican who represents the Central Valley’s Stanislaus County and parts of San Joaquin County, said in a statement that CHIP “needs the certainty that comes with a long-term reauthorization.”

In a telephone conference call with reporters last week, child-health advocates called for an immediate Congressional vote to continue the program.

Ann-Louise Kuhns, president and chief executive officer of the California Children’s Hospital Association, which represents eight nonprofit children’s hospitals in the state, said CHIP is an important component to the state’s goal of insuring all kids. To date, 97 percent of California children have health coverage.

“This is really a moral question,” said Kelly Hardy, senior managing director of health policy for Children Now, a California advocacy group. “Are we prioritizing our kids and families or are we not?”

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