Last week, all eyes in the health policy world were on the Supreme Court as it heard oral arguments in the King v. Burwell case challenging Affordable Care Act subsidies in states that rely on federally operated insurance marketplaces. If the Court sides with the plaintiffs when it rules on the case (likely in June), more than 8 million people could lose access to affordable health coverage.

While the fate of health care for those 8 million people rests on the decisions of two justices – Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy – there’s another pressing decision facing every member of Congress that also has sweeping implications for affordable health coverage: a looming September deadline to renew federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

ADVERTISEMENT

CHIP provides federal matching funds to states to cover uninsured children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford other insurance. Without action from Congress, federal funding for CHIP will run out on September 30.

State leaders are looking for swift action from Congress to renew funding so they have certainty about continuing federal support for their CHIP programs as they work on their budgets.

Enacted through bipartisan compromise in 1997, CHIP has proven highly effective. Since its enactment, the uninsured rate for children nationwide has been cut in half – from 14 percent to 7 percent. In 2013 more than 8.1 million children across the country were covered through CHIP.

Research shows that CHIP coverage has improved kids’ access to primary and preventive care, specialists and dentists. And, improved access has resulted in better health outcomes.

In addition, CHIP has played a positive role in efforts to tackle persistent racial disparities in our health care system, in part by expanding coverage for documented immigrant children and pregnant women who were previously barred from gaining access to health coverage for an arbitrary five-year waiting period. Thanks to the bipartisan ICHIA (Immigrant Children’s Health Improvement Act) provision included in the 2009 reauthorization of CHIP, 28 states and the District of Columbia have done away with that arbitrary bar, with impressive resulting gains in health coverage.

From a policy standpoint, renewing CHIP funding should be an easy call for members of Congress. From a political standpoint – and this may be the most crucial point in an era of highly charged partisan debates – it should be just as easy.

That’s because CHIP has an overwhelming record of bipartisan support. Thirty-nine governors, a broad mix of Republicans and Democrats, have weighed in with congressional leaders about CHIP, and all 39 supported the renewal of federal funding. Public support for CHIP is through the roof, and it cuts across political viewpoints and demographic groups: in a 2014 poll, voters supported renewing CHIP funding by a five to one margin, including strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Seventy-nine percent of Latinos supported renewing CHIP; so did 66 percent of Tea Party supporters.

Republican leaders of the key committees of jurisdiction recently released a discussion draft of a proposal to renew CHIP funding. Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation as well. These are positive signs, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

It’s important for Congress to move forward quickly to reach an agreement that continues CHIP funding. It’s also critically important that this renewal holds fast to two core principles: 1) leave no child worse off after renewal of CHIP than before, and 2) make sure CHIP renewal continues to reduce race-based health disparities, not worsen them.

The initial discussion draft from Republican leaders includes some policy ideas that would undermine one or both of these principles. These ideas include reversing a promised increase in the federal matching rate offered to states, reducing or eliminating matching funds for kids in families above 250 percent of the federal poverty level, and cutting back on funds for interpretation and translation services.

Those changes would leave more children without coverage and undermine states’ ability to follow through on their promises to children and families. That would be an unfortunate detour from CHIP’s mission.

States across the country want to continue the CHIP success story. Congress should give them a green light to move forward. 

Hall is the executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, a national organizing and policy network that works with state-based organizations to build campaigns for economic and racial equity.