By ERIN BECK
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The board of directors for the West Virginia Children’s Health Insurance Program voted Wednesday to shut down the CHIP program on Feb. 28, if Congress doesn’t allocate funding to the program soon.
CHIP provides health insurance to children whose parents make too much for Medicaid, but make less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
Congress let funding for the program expire Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
State officials had said in early October that West Virginia had enough funding that had been allocated, but not spent during the fiscal year, to continue paying for the program until early 2018. CHIP became 100 percent federally funded in West Virginia after the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, boosted funds to the program.
CHIP board members voted on the plan Wednesday morning, following a discussion focused on the need to transfer children eligible for the CHIP program from PEIA to CHIP.
Ted Cheatham, director of PEIA, talked about the need to inform lower-income state employees that their children are eligible, and increase the cost of plans that cover children. One board member asked why state employees are unaware that their children are eligible.
“I don’t know if I can auto-enroll them into CHIP,” Cheatham said. “What I’m going to do is, I’m going to make it so expensive, they’ll hopefully see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jeremiah Samples, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources deputy secretary said, via conference call, that “maybe they’re just worried,” citing uncertainty in Congress.
“We haven’t been doing even our regular outreach activities,” Stacey Shamblin, acting director of CHIP, said after the meeting, also citing uncertainty about the future of the program.
Samples said the DHHR would notify families and providers in early January that the program would shut down Feb. 28 if Congress has not reauthorized it. The DHHR expects the program to run out of money in March.
“That’s a serious life event that families are going to have to deal with,” he said after the meeting. “I really hope we won’t get to that point. I’m hopeful we won’t.”
The DHHR had noted in early October that children wouldn’t immediately lose their health coverage.
“We didn’t want folks to panic, because we had a little bit of time,” Samples said. “Time is starting to run out.”
Tricia Brooks, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said she worries that debate over tax reform, a Republican priority, will take up too much time.
“This is their opportunity, when they actually control both sides of Congress,” she said.
The center reported late last month that six states said, through a survey, that they would run out of money by the end of the year or early January 2018.
Lawmakers disagree over how to pay for the program.
“Look,” Brooks said, “this Congress hasn’t been able to agree on anything with regard to health policy.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with mainly Republican support last week. Brooks noted that Democrats opposed Republicans’ plan to pay for the program. She noted that the bill would stop Medicaid from paying for preventive care for children and prenatal services for mothers, when parents had other insurance. Some other insurance plans don’t pay for those services in a timely manner, she said.
The other, less-controversial, provisions involved how to count lottery winnings toward Medicaid income eligibility and requiring seniors who make more than $500,000 a year to pay more for Medicare, according to Brooks. A Senate committee has passed a version of the bill, which did not specify how to pay for it.
Brooks said the center anticipates that, if Congress reauthorizes the program, lawmakers will not pass it as a stand-alone bill.
“The Senate has expressed that they don’t want it to eat up time on the floor,” she said.
So she sees few options for passing it before 2018 — possibly in a continuing resolution to fund the government, since Congress hasn’t passed a budget, or a disaster package.
“If they’re pressing for tax reform to get done before the end of the year, which is what the president is focusing on, that’s going to be a big body of work and they may simply run out of time,” she said.
“It’s unprecedented for there to be a lapse in CHIP coverage like this,” she added.
The DHHR said last month that about 21,000 children are covered by CHIP. An additional 17,000 are covered by Medicaid plans that rely on CHIP money. Nearly 9 million children are covered nationwide.
The program, which was created with bipartisan support, celebrated its 20th anniversary in August.
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