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Editorial: Time is running out on children’s health insurance program

Twins Shiloh and Seilah Tappin and their friend Dani Hebron, all 7 years old, attend a news conference about CHIP and the ACA in Washington on Nov. 3.
Twins Shiloh and Seilah Tappin and their friend Dani Hebron, all 7 years old, attend a news conference about CHIP and the ACA in Washington on Nov. 3.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Every major federal health insurance program has become a political hot button in recent years, as Democrats and Republicans have tussled over the cost, reach and rationale of Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare. Those fights, in turn, have insinuated themselves into many of the major policy battles on Capitol Hill, including the current debate over whether to finance tax cuts in part by killing a key piece of Obamacare.

One oasis of bipartisanship, though, has been the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which helps states insure nearly 9 million kids in families too poor to afford coverage but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. About 2 million of those children are in California. Created in 1997 by a Republican-majority Congress and a Democratic president, the program has been reauthorized regularly since then with broad bipartisan support.

Until now. The Republicans who control Congress allowed the program’s authorization to lapse in September, shutting off the spigot of federal dollars. The main issue holding up reauthorization has been a fight over how to cover the program’s price tag. Let’s be clear: any sign of fiscal responsibility in Washington is welcome. Nevertheless, the hand-wringing over children’s health insurance, which costs $8 billion a year, stands in sharp contrast to the GOP’s eagerness to pass a package of tax cuts that would cost an estimated $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.

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The program has been running on fumes since October, with state and federal governments relying on reserves to keep it going. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize it by the end of this month, states will start dropping kids from the program, rolling back benefits or cutting other services to make up for the lost federal dollars. California is legally committed to keep the program going until late 2019, but the loss of federal funding — it received $2.4 billion for the program in fiscal 2016 — would blow a huge hole in the state’s budget.

We can debate the pros and cons of the Republicans’ tax cut plans all day long. But there’s no debate over the value of extending insurance coverage to children whose families could not otherwise afford it. Being insured enables children to receive checkups and other preventive care, treat illnesses promptly and stay in school, ready to learn. Healthy kids are the foundation of a healthy economy in the future.

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate are negotiating a compromise to extend funding for five years at the current rate, intending to pass it before the end of December. Their intentions may be good, but the foot-dragging means the reauthorization bill will be competing for time and attention with a slew of other, much more controversial must-pass measures, as well as a potential government shutdown in early December.

Two states — Colorado and Virginia — have already let families in the program know that they may be losing their coverage at the end of the year. That’s a cruelty needlessly inflicted by Congress. Lawmakers need to reauthorize the program before the situation gets any worse.

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