By Elise Viebeck - 06/11/14 04:44 PM EDT
Congress is taking its first step toward extending the popular Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) past next year, when more than 8 million children will lose their health coverage unless lawmakers take action.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation Wednesday that would fund CHIP through 2019. While the program is currently authorized through that year, its budget is set to expire next September.
"CHIP has been hugely successful in West Virginia and across the country because it has given children and pregnant women access to care and services that have greatly improved health outcomes," he said in a statement.
Advocates for children roundly praised the legislation and vowed to help move it through the process.
"We cannot let this program end," said James M. Perrin, president of the Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement. "Eight million children across the country rely on CHIP for their healthcare coverage, and we owe it to them to make sure it continues."
In addition to extending funds, Rockefeller's bill provides incentives for states to expand CHIP coverage and offer improved dental care for kids.
The measure also makes permanent CHIP's "express lane eligibility" option, allowing states to use data from other agencies to expedite CHIP enrollment, and provides grant funding for outreach efforts to the uninsured. A separate House bill is expected either this month or in July.
It is unclear how rancorous the debate over CHIP funding will be.
Healthcare policy is notoriously touchy in the current political environment, though CHIP advocates argue that the program benefits from its lack of association with the Affordable Care Act.
"This legislation to secure CHIP's future is urgent if states are to continue to operate their programs without interruption," Bruce Lesley, president of children's advocacy group First Focus, wrote to Rockefeller on Wednesday.
"We are committed to working with you to secure congressional action as soon as possible."