As a nation, what better investment opportunity do we have than our children?
© Getty

Our nation’s investments in children’s health, particularly in their earliest years of life when the foundations of adult health are set into place, have proven returns. But beyond gains in economics and social productivity, taking our best care of children is our duty. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which expired at the end of September, is essential in delivering on that responsibility. Nearly three months later, lawmakers have still yet to come to an agreement on how to extend long-term funding for a program that ensures life-saving care for 6 million children.

Despite inspired passionate pleas from families, delayed action on CHIP jeopardizes children’s health coverage across the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

Historically, CHIP has received bipartisan support from Congress and been widely recognized as an essential part of our national health care system, which is why it is so troubling that the program has yet to be funded. The failure to pass CHIP begs a reminder — this is not just another budget vote in Washington. Each one of the six million children who count on this program for their health care represents an opportunity to deepen the compassion, innovation, creativity and love in our communities and our nation. CHIP is important to our future; it is essential and it must be an immediate priority.

Democrats and Republicans alike say they want to reach an agreement before the end of the year, but as our nation’s children wait on Washington to find consensus, states have already begun to notify parents that their children could lose health coverage just after the holidays. Even under the best of circumstances, the holiday season can be a financial strain for parents; receiving a notice that their children’s health coverage is days or weeks away from cancelation could be devastating for families who are struggling to make ends meet. Make no mistake – stopgap CHIP funding is not enough to prevent states from continuing these actions.

State officials in Virginia started warning families last week that the popular CHIP program is about to run out of money. It’s one of several states that have notified families that federal funding for the program has ended, and without an immediate extension, kids’ coverage may end too. Many other states are making similar plans. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16 states will run out of federal funding for CHIP by the end of January, and once the money runs out, potentially hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of kids across America could lose their health insurance. A new analysis by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families estimates 1.9 million children in separate CHIP programs could lose coverage by the end of next month. That means if Congress fails to renew CHIP by the start of the year, over 2500 children could lose coverage every hour of every day in January.

Depending on how states have set up their CHIP programs, state authorities are planning to terminate or reduce coverage, cap enrollment or transition children to an already underfunded Medicaid system. Even if states can afford to temporarily freeze enrollment instead of outright terminating coverage, that action could negatively impact our nation’s health for years to come. When major state budget cuts resulted in Arizona freezing new enrollment in its CHIP program, KidsCare, just before January 2010, the KidsCare waiting list grew to more than 100,000 children by July 2011. Even after expanding KidsCare again in 2014, its uninsured rate for children remains one of the highest in the country — double that of California.

A lot of work has been done on how we can advance child and family health and well-being, but as a country, we are failing our children by not prioritizing key programs and allocating the resources needed to make this happen. As a nation together, we have no higher calling than to create opportunities for the next generation. These children — our kids and grandkids — must become the thriving adults who will lead our future nation and make a positive impact on the world. Now is the time to step forward, invest in health care coverage and ensure equal access to the full range of pediatric programs, providers and support necessary to ensure they grow up with a shot at a healthy adult life. This must start now. It must start with enacting a five-year extension of funding for the bipartisan Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Congress has the highly public opportunity to put principles over politics by demonstrating that children’s health is our nation’s top priority. There is bipartisan policy ready to be passed right now to extend CHIP funding for five years. Swift work across the aisle to find common ground will allow this important program to continue. Let’s give the families who rely on CHIP the peace of mind of knowing that their children will be able to get the health care they need in the new year. As we look to the future of our nation, this is where our immediate work lies — putting children first.

Wietecha is president and CEO of the Children's Hospital Association, on behalf of the nation’s children's hospitals.