More than 30,000 Montana children’s health coverage will end early next year — unless Congress acts in its few “work” days between its Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, expired on Sept. 30 with the House and Senate failing to reauthorize a program that has been a tremendous success for the past 20 years. Coverage is at risk of lapsing for 8.9 million U.S. kids.

Montana CHIP provides Medicaid coverage for some children whose family income is slightly above poverty level. It also funds a non-Medicaid, privately administered, low-cost insurance program for Montana kids whose families earn too much for Medicaid, but too little to afford children’s health insurance in the private market.

About 93,000 other Montana children are covered by traditional Medicaid because their family income is at or below poverty. Half of all Montana children with disabilities are covered by Medicaid. All of the 3,200-plus Montana kids in the foster care system are covered by Medicaid. Altogether, traditional Medicaid, CHIP Medicaid and non-Medicaid CHIP cover about 123,000 Montana children, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation to continue CHIP for America’s children under terms that Montana and other states support. However, congressional leaders have been so preoccupied with killing the Affordable Care Act, that they ignored the CHIP expiration date of Sept. 30.

Fortunately for 30,000 kids, the state of Montana has sufficient funds to keep its CHIP program going until January or February. Ten other states, including Utah, report they will have to end the program in November or December — unless Congress reauthorizes it sooner.

Children of lower-middle-income families — working families in all 50 states — are in limbo. CHIP reauthorization should pass, it should’ve already been done. If a strong majority of Republicans and Democrats can’t get a broadly popular, children’s health program renewed on time, what real hope is there for the more complex and controversial legislation that politicians seem to spend all their time debating?

“There’s no assurance we extend this program because it’s not done until it’s done,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told a Gazette reporter last week. “It could happen in October, but more likely it’ll happen in November or December or maybe the first half of next year. The crystal ball is very cloudy about when it could happen on this one because it should have already been done.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, called the program critical for Montana last week and added: "I am confident this will get done soon."

Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, also told a Gazette reporter that “the program has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and I expect Congress will reauthorize CHIP soon.”

That was last week, gentlemen, and Congress is on vacation this week. For the sake of your youngest constituents, move CHIP to the front burner. Light a fire under your House and Senate leadership to treat our children’s health with the urgency deserved. Get the job done before the next congressional recess.

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