January 24, 2018

Congress funds children's health program, but not health centers

While the three-day government shutdown has ended, the fate of many federal programs is still up in the air – but a children's health program that serves about 17,000 kids in Connecticut has come out a winner in the partisan fight over the federal budget.

The stopgap funding bill that was approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump Monday funds most of the federal government for three weeks but the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for six years.

CHIP, or HUSKY B as it is known in Connecticut, is a joint federal-state program, with the federal government picking up 88 percent of the cost.

HUSKY B covers children whose families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, providing health care for children in families of four earning up to $79,458 a year.

Higher-income families pay a small premium each month, a maximum of $30 for one child and $50 for two or more children. A family of four that makes less than $62,485 is not required to make these payments.

Federal funding for the program had ended on Sept. 30 and Congress could not agree on how to extend it. States like Connecticut continued to run the program on funds that were left over from recent years, money redistributed from other states, and a tiny, partial appropriation.

Parents in the state were warned by the Connecticut Department of Social Services the program would end, first at the end of January, then at the end of February, and most recently at the end of March.

Coverage of children who depended on HUSKY B lurched from month to month before Congress approved the continuing resolution, or CR, that ended the shutdown.

On Tuesday, the day after Congress acted, the Connecticut Department of Social Services announced "great news for families of more than 17,000 children enrolled in HUSKY B."

"The Children's Health Insurance Program (known in Connecticut as HUSKY B) has been extended for six years."

Karen Siegel, health policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said the long-term CHIP extension "is exactly what we had hoped to see."

Siegel said long-term funding of the CHIP program, put in the CR to win the support of Democrats for the short-term spending bill, gives parents certainty about their children's health care coverage.

"Now, we just have to make sure they have a place to get care," Siegel said.

The CR funds the federal government at last year's level for another three weeks. But new programs or additional money to help hurricane victims and those addicted to opioids, are not funded in the CR. Nor is there any funding for community health care centers, which serve many HUSKY B children.

Siegel said the centers – there are 17 in the state – may have to cut staff and hours if Congress does not appropriate new money for a community heath center grant program that, like CHIP funding, expired on Sept. 30.

Community health centers in the state receive about $54 million in federal funding each year and 70 percent of that, or about $37 million, is at risk.

While Congress has agreed to fund CHIP, or HUSKY B, at an increased level mandated by the Affordable Care Act, legislation that extended the program will gradually reduce the ACA "bump," which increased the federal share of the program, beginning in 2020. That will force states to pay more of the share of the program's cost or limit eligibility, most probably by lowering income limits.

Siegel hopes Congress eventually agrees to keep the ACA "bump" permanently.

"But there is still trouble ahead," she said.

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