Last updated: June 19. 2014 11:13PM - 2777 Views
By Jon O’Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com

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Although the Children’s Health Insurance Program technically is in effect for the next five years, the money to keep it running soon could disappear.

“The basic problem we’ve got is the program is authorized through fiscal year 2019, but not funded,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said during a telephone news conference Thursday morning.

Funding for the program is set to expire Sept. 30 next year.

There are about 188,000 Pennsylvania children enrolled in the health-care program, which is funded in part by the federal government and in part by the state, according to the most recent numbers published in December.

Casey, D-Scranton, is part of an effort on Capitol Hill to get ahead of the expiration date and extend funding to the end of 2019.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program Extension Act of 2014 is expected to make its full debut before the Senate next month. It was drafted by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia.

Casey’s father, the late Robert P. Casey, led the charge for the state’s CHIP program in 1993, when he was Pennsylvania governor. It is considered one of his landmark achievements.

In 1997, the federal government jumped on board, subsidizing states’ CHIP programs as the program grew more popular.

CHIP is designed to bridge the gap for folks who cannot afford private health insurance, yet earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

In his act, Rockefeller proposes a few new features to CHIP primarily to give states flexibility in running their own programs. Eligibility standards vary from state to state, but nearly all states require families living at 300 percent of the federal poverty level to pay small premiums for CHIP coverage.

Under the proposed funding bill, states can choose whether to charge premiums, increase coverage access for children living with special needs, and eligibility could be capped at 300 percent of the poverty level.

The proposal also calls for sweeping changes that would allow foster children to receive coverage until age 26, extend coverage to pregnant women and extend the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which is also set to expire in 2015.

A personal matter

Casey was auditor general when his father was governor, and his department actually audited the program his father pushed hard to pass back in 1993. “I was obviously very proud of what he did and supported his efforts at the state level,” Casey said. “We had a great start in Pennsylvania under his leadership.”

While the program at the outset was a bipartisan effort, division growing in the ranks of politicians today threatens to see funding lapse, Casey said.

CHIP was continued to 2019 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, better known as Obamacare; however, funding was set to expire in 2015 as debates raged in Congress as to whether CHIP should be rolled in with Medicaid.

“That was a mistake,” he said. “I still think it’s a mistake.”

Just how much a new funding bill will cost taxpayers is still unclear, though Casey said he expects to have a better financial outlook soon.

Cost and impact

CHIP cost the federal government $9 billion in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office website. Pennsylvania spent $130 million on it during the 2013/14 fiscal year, and the 2014-15 budget proposes to spend more than $15 million, according to a state House Appropriations Committee fact sheet.

Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania was the first insurance provider to administer CHIP under then-Gov. Casey.

At the program’s inception in 1993, the provider had about 87o Luzerne County children enrolled in CHIP, according to Times Leader archives. Since then, enrollment has grown to 4,600 with most families receiving free health care.

“We applaud any congressional measure to ensure that this program remains a viable option for Pennsylvania families,” a Blue Cross spokesman said in a prepared statement.

Geisinger Health Plan has enrolled 10,000 children across 40 Pennsylvania counties in CHIP, spokeswoman Amy Bowen said. Although Geisinger would like to see CHIP continue, Bowen was confident that if suspended, all Pennsylvanians still will find health coverage that fits their budget.

“We do offer Geisinger Health Plan Family,” Bowen said of the Medicaid-funded coverage. “Most children would be able to move into that.” Also, the Affordable Care Act is working in helping families get covered, she said.

Gov. Tom Corbett is pushing for state health care reform through Healthy Pennsylvania, which would increase access to health care, Bowen said.

But with the federal CHIP program rooted in Pennsylvania, Bowen said it’s proof the state is somewhat unique in supporting health care for all. That mentality could preserve it despite potential dried-up federal dollars, she said.

Casey was insistent: Legislators who plan on voting against the funding bill should come armed with a suitable substitute. However, he said, the program as it stands has been effective and should be preserved.

“It’s critically important that we take the next step, which is to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program Extension Act,” Casey said.

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