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BRENDA BLAGG: Time to CHIP in

Federal funding for insurance program still at risk

The clock continues to tick toward demise of a critical federal program that helps insure children and pregnant women in Arkansas and all over the country.

Like so much else, its fate is hung up in the U.S. Congress.

Arkansans covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, will lose that coverage at the end of March, if the Congress fails to reauthorize funding by then.

That's how far Arkansas officials expect to stretch the funding it has already received.

The federal program has pumped more than $194 million into Arkansas this year to administer the program that provides low-premium coverage to children in families too poor to afford private health insurance but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

The state government contributes, too, but the federal funding is irreplaceable.

That federal spigot has been shut off until the Congress reauthorizes funding.

The consequence?

Thousands of Arkansas families may be left to choose more expensive private insurance or have no insurance at all, if the state gets no more federal money for the program.

Those families could face choices between food and other necessities or seeking medical care for a sick or injured child -- care that otherwise may have been covered by CHIP.

Having insurance means children can get checkups and other preventive care, treat illness before it worsens, stay and school and be ready to learn.

The benefits have been obvious in Arkansas over the 20 years the CHIP program has been in existence.

Losing it would be a tragedy in a state that has managed to reach an historic low (just under 5 percent) in the number of children who are uninsured.

Credit ARKids First, the insurance program initiated back during the administration of former Gov. Mike Huckabee with support from a Legislature that was then controlled by Democrats.

Before ARKids became available, the rate of uninsured children in Arkansas was four times as high as today's 5 percent rate.

While Medicaid covers more than 300,000 of the ARKids participants, CHIP provides funding to insure 120,000 more low- and moderate-income families each year.

Together, Medicaid and CHIP cover almost half of all Arkansas kids and more than half of those living in rural communities.

The numbers are part of a report from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families detailing how consistent health-insurance coverage has helped kids thrive over the 20-year life of the CHIP program.

Nationwide, CHIP covers nearly 9 million children and 370,000 pregnant women each year.

This year's funding ran out on Sept. 30, leaving individual states to cope as they could.

Originally authorized in 1997 for 10 years, the program has received shorter-term extensions in recent years. Now, states are anxiously awaiting renewal of the funding.

For the record, all four of Arkansas' representatives voted for a five-year reauthorization approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

Both of Arkansas' U.S. senators say they support funding for CHIP, but the Senate has yet to approve it.

Nevertheless, it can't hurt for Arkansans to press members of the congressional delegation to get this reauthorization done.

The Congress is finding time to pass tax cuts for corporations and richer people. Surely they can help cover the cost to insure children and pregnant women on the other end of the income spectrum.

Commentary on 12/06/2017

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