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Chellie Pingree Co-Sponsors Bill To Renew Funding For Children’s Health Insurance Program

Ed Morin
Maine Public file
Chellie Pingree in Portland in January.

It has been nearly three months since Congress failed to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. Now, some states are scrambling to fill a looming budget shortfall.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District is co-sponsoring a bill that would reauthorize funding for the insurance program, which covers 9 million children. Maine’s CHIP has enough money in the bank through June of next year, but children’s advocates warn that the clock is ticking.

Claire Berkowitz of the Maine Children’s Alliance says CHIP fills a gap in health coverage, specifically for kids.

“It’s really for families who are low income who don’t have health insurance through their employer, but make too much money in order for their family to qualify for Medicaid,” she says.

According to Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, CHIP covers more than 11,000 children in the state. And the program is a good deal for Maine, Berkowitz says, because federal funds cover the majority of its roughly $33 million annual cost.

“We get about $32 million in federal CHIP funding, this was in fiscal year 2016, so that’s a loss of funds coming into Maine that helps our economy as well,” she says.

Berkowitz says it’s a popular program that has received bipartisan support in the past. She says she doesn’t understand why Congress isn’t making it a priority.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16 states will see their federal funding run out in January.

“There are children who have health care needs that need consistent coverage, and their families are looking at the calendar and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, are we going to have coverage for our kids going into the new year?’” Berkowitz says.

“The basic disagreement here I think has been about where the funding comes from, and the length of the time that it’s reauthorized,” Pingree says.

Pingree says earlier Republican proposals to reauthorize CHIP have failed because they only provided short-term funding and took money away from other health programs. She’s co-sponsoring a bill that would extend CHIP funding for five years, and cover the cost by shifting the timing of payments to Medicare Advantage and Part D plans.

“I really do believe funding the CHIP program is a Republican value too. This isn’t about a leftist idea. This is a critical component of health,” she says.

A spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District says he supports CHIP, but favors an earlier bill that redirected prevention and public health dollars to cover its costs.

Pingree says negotiations over CHIP will likely play a critical role in whether the federal government shuts down on Dec. 22. State Democratic lawmaker Drew Gattine, House chair of the Appropriations Committee, says he hopes Congress will resolve the issue.

“If it’s not resolved as we roll into the short session, which is supposed to end in the middle of April, we’re going to have to go to the administration, DHHS, and talk to them about what the contingency plan will be,” he says.

Maine’s CHIP program has funding through the end of the fiscal year in June. A DHHS spokeswoman said in an email that if Congress doesn’t take action, the state will have to determine its next steps.

And as families who rely on CHIP face an uncertain future, community health centers do too. Pingree’s bill would reauthorize their funding for two years, which expired in September.

“It’s a 70 percent cut to funding,” says Darcy Shargo, interim CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association. “The health centers that will feel that pinch are the ones that have a budget period that starts in January, and there are about a third of Maine health centers who are in that boat.”

Shargo says Maine has about 70 community health centers, which serve about 200,000 people. And some have had to put the brakes on services, including opioid treatment programs.

This story was originally published Dec. 12, 2017 at 4:59 p.m. ET.