January 16, 2018

Congress needs to protect CHIP-fast

West Virginia is often at the top or bottom of lists of states. Not in a good way.

One exception to this - at least up to now - is its Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

CHIP was enacted with bipartisan support by Congress in 1997 in the wake of sweeping welfare reform legislation that would lead to millions of poor families with children losing benefits.

In a moment of humanity that seems sadly distant today, Republicans and Democrats recognized that children should not suffer as a result of these policy changes. CHIP was intended to provide coverage to children in working families where the parents didn't have employer-provided health insurance, something which is all too common.

Our then-Sen. Jay Rockefeller played a key role in getting CHIP passed.

In the spirit of the "new federalism" that prevailed at the time, enacting and expanding CHIP was a state option.

It took a bit of a fight - in which churchwomen played a key role - but the West Virginia Legislature moved to enact the program in 1998. At first, the program supplied coverage to children under 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

Since then, the eligibility level has been raised several times, most recently by former Gov. Tomblin in 2011 to cover children under 300 percent of the poverty level.

It's one thing to get something passed and another to get kids signed up. This is where West Virginia really took the lead. Over a period of nearly 20 years, public and private efforts have combined to provide near universal enrollment of eligible children.

As of August 2017, fully 97 percent of state children have health coverage. That put us in the top 10 states for covering kids.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Congress failed to reauthorize the program by the Sept. 30, 2017, deadline. Apparently, it had other priorities, such as making the very rich richer at the expense of everyone else.

At the very last minute before the holidays, Congress finally passed a temporary fix for CHIP - but only through March. At the time, 16 states were going to run out of funding for the program by the end of January and most of the rest will hit bottom soon after. This would have meant around 9 million children and 370,000 pregnant women losing coverage. For some of them, CHIP is matter of life and death.

A temporary fix is nice, but just that. Congress needs to wake up and do the right thing for the long term. And West Virginia's delegation needs to lead the way.

(This op-ed appeared in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)