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time running out

While House and Senate Republicans have agreed to finance the corporate tax cut by ballooning the national debt, they have insisted the cost of health care for low-income children be paid for with cuts in other federal health care spending.

Time is running out for 9 million American children covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including 24,000 Montana children. CHIP expired at the end of September and Congress has failed to reauthorize it. Most states had enough money to continue children’s care through this fall, but money will run out this month for some.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle profess to be in favor of CHIP. Early in November, House Republicans passed a five-year CHIP bill that would also extend community health center funding for two years. The bill would cut preventive care spending and charge some higher-income Medicare enrollees a new fee to cover the costs of CHIP and the community health centers.

As of Monday, the Senate hasn’t passed a CHIP bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped write the corporate income tax bill, said last Thursday that there isn’t money to continue the children’s health program.

“We're going to do CHIP, there's no question about it in my mind. It has to be done the right way,” Hatch said Thursday on the U.S. Senate floor. “But we — the reason CHIP is having trouble is because we don't have money anymore.”

Unless Congress acts, the entire federal government runs out of money on Friday. President Donald Trump and Congress haven’t yet agreed on a budget for the fiscal year that began two months ago. CHIP is likely to be included in a massive budget bill, possibly later this week. 

But keep your eyes open. What tradeoff will be demanded to keep kids covered? Will CHIP be funded for a or less? Why are corporate tax cuts a higher priority for the GOP than children’s health?

As Holly Michels reported for The Gazette last week, without a federal funding renewal by the middle of this month, the Montana Department Public Health and Human Services will send letters to the families of 24,000 Montana kids, letting them know CHIP will run out of funding at the end of January.

Funding CHIP is a top priority for most Americans, according to a Kaiser poll conducted in mid-November. In the poll, 62 percent of respondents rated reauthorizing CHIP funding as a top priority, making the kids’ program slightly more popular than funding for places in the U.S. affected by hurricanes, which 61 percent listed as a top priority.

“Reforming the tax code, which may cut taxes for some” was a top priority for only 28 percent of those polled.

Most Americans recognize the tremendous importance of caring for the health of our children. It’s also a great investment -- preventing lifelong problems that cause disability, suffering and higher medical costs.

Congress needs to get that message. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, has been a staunch supporter of CHIP, advocating its reauthorization with no strings attached. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte should buck their party’s line. Put children’s health ahead of partisan politics. Pay for kid’s health care first, then figure out how much corporate taxes can be reduced.

States are running out of money, the National Governor’s Association said in calling on Congress again last week to reauthorize CHIP. Colorado was the first state to notify families that their kids are at risk for losing CHIP coverage, according to National Public Radio. Virginia officials are drafting a similar letter.

NPR reported that Texas is running out of CHIP funds faster than expected because many children were enrolled for the first time after Hurricane Harvey hit, leaving families homeless and children traumatized. Like CHIP families in Montana, those Texas families may be getting letters just before Christmas telling them that the children soon won’t have health insurance.