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Brenda Blagg: All in with CHIPS

Program’s funding could get lost among Congress’ debates

Time is running out for a critical federal program that serves 120,000 Arkansas kids.

The U.S. Congress needs to act by the end of this month to keep money flowing to the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

Otherwise, Arkansas and other states that rely on the federal funding are expected to exhaust their CHIP funds early next year.

Almost half the children in this state (more than half of those in rural communities) get their health insurance funded through either CHIP or Medicaid. CHIP kicks in to cover kids from low- and moderate-income families who are ineligible for Medicaid.

The state government contributes, too, but federal funding is the backbone of ARKids First, the bipartisan-supported insurance program initiated during the administration of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and supported then by a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Medicaid covers more than 300,000 of the ARKids recipients and CHIP takes care of another 120,000.

The result is an historic low (just under 5 percent) in the number of Arkansas children who are uninsured. That represents a huge drop from the 20 percent rate for uninsured children before ARKids First came into being.

The extension of health insurance to so many has made a tremendous change in children's lives, including their readiness for school, according to Arkansas Advocates For Children and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The organization cites access to both primary and preventive care now available to Arkansas children and argues more working families would be "one health crisis away from bankruptcy" without the CHIP funding that is currently at risk.

Initially funded by the Congress for a 10-year period, CHIP has gotten much briefer extensions from the lawmakers in recent years. The latest extension runs out on Sept. 30, unless the Congress passes a new one.

Funding on hand for the program would reportedly dry up in March, if nothing is done.

Surely, you'd think lawmakers couldn't overlook this critical issue.

Nevertheless, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which lobbies at the state and national level, has been trying to call attention to the potential funding crisis, using both social media and public meetings to rally public support.

"A failure to renew CHIP would hurt kids and families in Arkansas and across the U.S.," according to a recent Arkansas Advocates blog post and position paper.

It was the point being underscored this week at a policy forum in Springdale.

"We don't want to gamble with this in any way," said Laura Kellams, the Advocates' Northwest Arkansas director who appealed to those at the forum to contact their representatives to preserve CHIP.

The fundamental concern is that this program, which still enjoys bipartisan support, might be overlooked in the current crush facing the Congress.

That is understandable. If the Congress were only worrying about how to find recovery money for hurricane-ravaged Texas and Florida, that would cause worry enough.

The flooding and wind damage in those states, not to mention the losses in the wildfire-charred American West, are a necessary preoccupation for this Congress.

Remember, too, that CHIP funding is under consideration along with all the rest of the programs in the federal budget -- and some more that aren't yet in the budget but could be.

That all gets further complicated by the push for tax reform, which could cut the availability of money in general. And then there are other demands for spending, like President Trump's insistence on a pricey border wall.

The argument over that wall alone threatens the orderly adoption of a new budget by this fractured Congress. There is plenty reason to worry that attention to details, including funding for CHIP, might be missed.

Commentary on 09/13/2017

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