Thousands of S.C. children are caught in the middle of a government funding fight.
Up to 80,000 children in the Palmetto State are covered by CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The federal program pays for states to provide health care to uninsured children whose families don’t qualify for Medicaid insurance coverage for the poor.
CHIP offers coverage for checkups and other wellness services, usually with no copayment required.
However, the program’s future has become part of the ongoing fight in Congress about funding the government next year. Money for CHIP ran out Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. So far, Congress has not agreed on a plan to renew the $14 billion a year in federal money that CHIP depends on.
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Federal lawmakers’ next chance to extend the program will be Jan. 19, when a short-term government funding measure expires. In the meantime, worries are mounting that the CHIP program could run out of money. Some states already are sending messages to CHIP families that they might have to find alternatives for their children’s health care needs.
South Carolina is in better shape than some other states. The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services estimated its current CHIP money could last until late April, before Congress approved an additional $2.85 billion in a temporary spending bill Dec. 22.
“While the agency believes (this spending) will push this date out several months, we have not yet received formal notice of South Carolina’s allocation,” said interim state Health and Human Services Director Joshua Baker.
In South Carolina, CHIP is administered through the state’s Medicaid program. That means a family that depends on CHIP would not necessarily know their child’s coverage comes from the program.
“Nobody knows where they fall on the federal poverty guidelines. That’s not at the top of people’s heads,” said Shelli Quenga, program director for the nonprofit Palmetto Project. “Most people don’t know their coverage is in danger.”
Sue Berkowitz, who works with CHIP families at the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, says a family that loses CHIP coverage doesn’t have a program that offers comparable benefits to fall back on.
“There is no alternative,” she said. “If this goes away, they’re uninsured.”
But the state’s Baker says that if South Carolina’s federal CHIP money runs out, the state “would continue to cover CHIP beneficiaries” with Medicaid money.
Even if families that lose CHIP coverage can find private health insurance for their children, their health costs almost certainly will go up. That’s because CHIP doesn’t require families to pay premiums or deductibles.
Quenga worries that parents of children who lose CHIP coverage could lose their health coverage, too.
“People tend to prioritize their kids’ health care over their own,” Quenga said. “This could have a snowball effect of people losing coverage.”
A permanent funding fix for CHIP is tied up with other issues facing Congress, which needs to approve a spending plan to keep the government open, reform federal surveillance programs and find a replacement for the expiring DACA program that covers young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally.
That worries health experts who see the future of the CHIP program getting kicked down the road again and fret about what that means for other social programs.
“If Congress is willing to let kids go uninsured, I can’t imagine what they will do with the other cuts to the budget,” Berkowitz said.