Congress needs to get to work and reauthorize children's health insurance

Congress needs to get to work and reauthorize children's health insurance
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I have Lupus: a chronic disease I have had since I was nine years old. As I grew up, my disease worsened. I saw specialists and needed sophisticated and costly testing. There were more trips to the emergency room and increasingly expensive medicines needed. My mother was young and divorced, raising two girls on her own.

She had a good job with health care benefits and a compassionate, flexible boss. And she had her social capital, as a white woman with the language of power and privilege she could wield on behalf of her sick child. These factors, plus her unwavering love kept me healthy and symptom-free.

Right now there are mothers like mine, with sick children, who lack the employer health benefits that my mother had. Their access to health care is in the hands of Congress as they are anxiously waiting for Democrats and Republicans to finally work together and fund the Child Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP.


On Sept. 30 Congress, due to stubbornness worse than any toddler’s, let CHIP expire. Their unprincipled inaction left almost 9 million American children soon to be without health care. How could this be? CHIP has high rates of health care provider participation and decades of public support. 

In early mid-September, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll and found that three-fourths of the American public want Congress to reauthorize CHIP. Currently, most states have enough money to continue serving children through the New Year but eleven states will run out of funding by January.

On Nov. 3, the House passed a Republican-sponsored bill to fund CHIP but did so by slashing funding from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) program which supports prevention and public health for vulnerable populations.

Created in 1997 with bipartisan backing, CHIP incentivizes states to offer health care to low- to moderate-income families who cannot afford private insurance and do not qualify for Medicaid. All states participate and, as a result, the rate of uninsured children is at an all time low. States contribute and individualize the program to meet the needs of their community.

This upfront investment saves states in the long run. One study found that for each child dropped from public insurance the state’s costs rose by more than $2000. Instead of spending on lower-cost preventive health services, states ended up paying for more expensive intervention services. 

Since founding an Early Head Start program, I have seen the impact quality health care has on families. Grace (a pseudonym) was a toddler when she came to our program. She had significant developmental delays and special needs. She needed expensive equipment, regular occupational and physical therapy, and routine supports from a team of health practitioners.

Her mother, Patricia, and her family child care provider Debra, loved, educated, and raised Grace. But their consistent and nurturing care wouldn’t have been enough to keep Grace healthy and alive. Her life depended on access to quality medical care. CHIP and Medicaid provide children, like Grace, the coverage they need to come to school healthy and ready to learn, and for their families to be productive employees and parents.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, remember that quality early health benefits everyone. When children receive regular preventive care, on-time immunizations, and the medications they need, they are not sick and contagious, putting other people at risk. With a strong and healthy foundation in their early years, children grow into contributing members of society.

How can congress play with the lives of our most precious resource? Can they not see their own children and grandchildren in the faces of the 9 million children whose health care they are sacrificing?

I try to imagine what my life would be like today without the quality health care I received as a child. Or what the life of Grace and her family would look like without pubic health insurance.

Congress: Lives depend on you. Not just children’s lives but all of ours. Get to work and reauthorize CHIP. The damage to our nation will be irreparable if you fail to act.

Janna Wagner is Co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at All Our Kin. She is a lecturer in Education Studies at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow at Yale. She is also a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow.