Family Health Center

The Family Health Center sees about 4,000 children every year who rely on CHIP.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

More than 3,300 McLennan County children will soon lose coverage for immunizations, cancer treatments, routine doctor visits and more if Congress does not reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program funding it let expire in September.

Some 450,000 Texans who rely on the federal program, which covers children whose family incomes exceed the limits for Medicaid but amount to less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, could receive letters around Christmas saying their coverage will expire Jan. 31.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said she is confident a $90 million boost from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will keep CHIP active through February in Texas. That funding must be finalized in the next week.

Still, policy experts are anxious for Congress to secure a five-year extension of the program established in 1997 that serves about 9 million Americans.

Affected families would be referred to the Affordable Care Act marketplace, but some could fall through the cracks, said Adriana Kohler, senior health policy associate for the nonpartisan group Texans Care for Children.

“At first, people expected Congress to renew the funding,” Kohler said. “But the longer they wait, the closer Texas gets to cutting off health care for kids. We really need Congress to get the job done quickly. We can’t rely on a, ‘It’ll probably work out,’ strategy.”

Roland Goertz, president of the Waco Family Health Center, said failure to renew the program with longstanding bipartisan support shows the deepest politicization of health care he has seen in almost 35 years of practice.

“It’s as if any discussion of health care is off-limits from the current leadership, other than repealing Obamacare,” Goertz said. “They’re very willing to talk about that. But it seems that because there’s been some anti sentiment about that, that has actually convinced a lot of America that it’s not important or that we shouldn’t talk about it, that it’s not being dealt with at all. Some of these are incredibly important programs.”

Goertz, a former president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said 4,000 children who visit the Family Health Center’s 16 locations would lose CHIP coverage without congressional action. The center sees about 55,000 low-income patients each year who receive medical, dental and behavioral services.

CHIP also covers pregnant women, and private physicians also see patients covered by CHIP, Goertz said.

In August, 209 McLennan County women used the program for prenatal care, delivery and postpartum care.

“Those kids don’t have any say about this,” Goertz said. “They’re dependent upon everything except themselves. That, to me, is what’s sad also.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a CHIP funding bill on Nov. 3, a month after funding expired, with 227 Republican votes and 15 Democrat votes. Most House Democrats opposed the bill, partly because it would raise Medicare premiums for wealthy seniors and narrow the grace period for Affordable Care Act customers to pay premiums from three months to one.

But U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee he serves on played “political games” that led to CHIP funding expiring Sept. 30.

“I hope that the Senate will hurry up and get this passed because we know the president will sign it,” Flores said. “That way we take 450,000 Texas families out of this uncertain state of limbo that they’re in today.”

The Senate has not voted on legislation reauthorizing CHIP. A deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Cornyn expressed support for the program during a Senate Finance Committee markup in October.

“This is a unique piece of legislation because it does enjoy such broad, bipartisan support,” Cornyn said at the time. “And it’s a good example of how providing states with flexibility and resources in the form of block grants can be successful in improving health coverage and outcomes.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Family Health Center faces another obstacle, Goertz said. Much of a $3.4 million base grant for uninsured patients could disappear unless Congress reaches agreements on appropriations.

“I don’t know if this is games playing or political playing or what. But that’s not encouraging,” he said.

The House bill, known as the Championing Healthy Kids Act, would continue the program for five years.

“Everyone gets elected saying that they’re going to work together, and all that really ever happens is they only work with their own party,” Goertz said. “And that’s not how you’re going to help health care because health care impacts everybody, no matter what party you’re part of. No matter what race, ethnicity or background you have, at some point of your life, you’re going to need health care.”

Phillip has covered higher education for the Tribune-Herald since November 2015.

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