Sen. Casey: Spare CHIP beneficiaries from exchange

The Children's Health Insurance Program could be spared from the chopping block if Sen. Bob Casey's (D-Pa.) forthcoming amendment musters sufficient support.

His effort, previewed Tuesday during a conference call with reporters, would amend the Senate's healthcare bill to ensure CHIP was not dissolved into the legislation's proposed health insurance exchange.

"I think it would be a huge mistake to put a stand-alone, successful program into the exchange, as opposed to keeping them separate in the Senate bill," Casey told reporters Tuesday, noting CHIP's demonstrated success since its implementation.

"In addition to the policy argument against putting CHIP in the exchange, I think it'll be more expensive... there may actually be a savings [if we keep it], or it may end up being neutral," he added.

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Instead, Casey's measure would fully fund CHIP until 2019, increase the federal government's matching percentage, expand program eligibility and reward states that demonstrate progress in care and coverage.

The amendment would also freeze states' CHIP contribution rates at their October 1, 2009 levels, a move some states that struggled to balance their budgets last year are likely to lament, the senator later acknowledged.

Casey did admit he has yet to receive an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office -- a score that has so far kept his amendment from the floor. But he stressed this afternoon that his amendment preserved a "system that works," and he urged lawmakers to develop the same sort of "consensus" on CHIP reform that greeted the program's passage in 1997.

However, should the Pennsylvania Democrat's amendment clear a floor vote, it will put his chamber's bill on a collision course with the House's healthcare effort.

The lower chamber's bill, much like the Senate's current legislation, terminates CHIP in 2013 and similarly permits families to shop for children's coverage in the private exchange. House Democrats included the provision to end the program in part to save money and prevent program overlaps.

“[O]nce health care reform is in place, however, the case for a separate program for children – one that excludes their parents – is less compelling,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House's Energy and Commerce Committee, previously said.