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Congress urged to reauthorize children’s health program

University of Chicago medical students rally to call

University of Chicago medical students rally to call on Congress to reauthorize funding forthe Children's Health Insurance Program on Dec. 14, 2017, in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

More than 350,000 New York children enrolled in the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program — including 66,000 on Long Island and 132,000 in New York City — are at risk of losing their health coverage by March if Congress does not re-extend the decades-old program, according to state health data.

Social service agency heads in the region have said without the program, known as CHIP, thousands of children enrolled in the health plan may face lapses in lifesaving medical treatments, immunizations and routine checkups. The agencies are among the growing chorus of voices calling on the Republican majority in Congress to reauthorize funding for the initiative before lawmakers adjourn for the holidays.

Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a Melville-based nonprofit that represents 200 social service agencies, said allowing the program’s funding to run out will be “dangerous” for children dependent on the coverage, who typically hail from low- to moderate-income families.

“You have children with cancer, children with diabetes, children with very serious medical needs, so any gap in coverage is very dangerous,” Sanin said.

The $14 billion program, approved with bipartisan support in 1997 under then-President Bill Clinton, currently insures about 9 million U.S. children. It has been credited with reducing the number of uninsured Americans under age 19 from 14 percent at the program’s inception to 4.7 percent last year, according to federal figures.

The program — which provides free and low-cost health insurance to children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still cannot afford private insurance — expired on Oct. 1, after the GOP-led House and Senate failed to act on a measure to reauthorize funding for the program. Senate and House Republicans have said they support renewing CHIP but have failed to reach a consensus on how to fund the program.

Meanwhile, Democrats have pushed back on the claim that there is not enough money available for the program, noting that Republicans are pushing a tax reform plan that according to nonpartisan budget groups would add $1 trillion to the national debt.

States have been using unspent CHIP funding to keep the program afloat, but 16 states expect that money to run out by January. New York, which receives about $1 billion in federal CHIP funding annually, is expected to run out by March, according to the nonpartisan Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission. States also contribute a portion to the program — last year New York allocated $156 million to the program, known in the state as Children’s Health Plus.

President Donald Trump signed a short-term government spending bill last week, directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to distribute unused CHIP funds to the states most at risk of running out of funding, but social services advocates and state medical groups have complained the move is only a short-term fix.

“This is not a partisan issue, but a program that provides essential health services for vulnerable children,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker wrote in an Oct. 11 letter to acting U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan, calling for CHIP’s renewal.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, which funds children’s health programs throughout Nassau, said worried parents have started to ask clinic staff for extra medication, fearing they will not have insurance to cover the cost of prescriptions next year.

“Beyond the problems that disproportionately impact low-income kids — like asthma, for example — cold and flu season is in full swing and these parents are wondering what they’ll do if they lose coverage,” Reynolds said. “They are asking prescribers for extra Tamiflu.”

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