CHIP and the End of Empathy

By: Sara Marcus  |  February 15, 2018

This past month, the most recent government shutdown ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Both parties agreed to stay open to talking about immigration at some later point, and passed a short term spending budget. Amidst all the wound-licking, name-calling, and vicious debate over immigration, nestled in the spending bill, was a bipartisan victory. It was only four months past the deadline.

If you are mildly interested in politics, or just have a Facebook feed, odds are you might have spent a good chunk of time scrolling either past or through articles about the American healthcare system. But while dramatic hyper-partisan battles about Obamacare take over the news, another health insurance program had been wheezing for support.

CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, provides health coverage to families that earn too much for Medicaid, but not enough to afford more expensive coverage. More than nine million low-income families rely on CHIP to ease the cost of healthcare for their children. Co-created by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy in 1997, it had been reauthorized over the years overwhelmingly by both parties, and still has wide bipartisan support. Polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthcare policy nonprofit, found “three fourths of the public saying it is important for Congress to work on reauthorizing funding for [CHIP].” When asked in September, as the deadline for renewing CHIP was approaching, 89% of Democrats, 72% of Independents, and 62% of Republicans said it was “extremely” important for Congress to restore funding.

But for nearly five months, CHIP was in budgetary limbo and there was nothing out of Congress. The program had become another victim of the dysfunction our aggressively partisan politics has wrecked on our legislature. When Republicans put a refunding bill up for vote Democrats refused to pass it because it would require relenting on Obamacare coverage. When the situation because more urgent towards the end of the year, Republicans refused to bring a CHIP refund bill up on its own because they were focusing on passing a more flashy tax bill. And when the government shuddered into a shutdown rather than agree on immigration, low-income parents found that the healthcare of their children was being held hostage as a way for parties to draw their lines in the sand about entirely different political issues.

The delays in extending CHIP were because the debate wasn’t about CHIP. It had become a another partisan prize in a political game playing for the cameras in Washington. But that meant outside of D.C., nearly thirty blue and red states were in danger of running out of funds within the first three months of 2018.

There were nine million children whose parents might have had to choose between emergency surgery or the electrical bill if Congress would not have had not passed the refund bill, which they finally did 114 days late. It’s a disgrace that our political parties can agree only in principle that parents should be able to afford to take their children to the doctor.