DENVER – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday the state was in the process of creating a list of children and pregnant mothers who are at the “greatest risk” should Congress not fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) before Colorado’s funding runs out at the end of January.
"This is probably one of the very few issues the majority of Republicans and Democrats all agree should be a priority for funding in this country," the governor said Tuesday.
Colorado began sending letters to families of the approximately 75,000 children and 800 expectant mothers at the end of November warning them they might need to start looking for private insurers in the event Congress doesn’t fund CHIP, which is known as Children’s Health Plan Plus (CHP+) in the state.
Families covered by CHP+ are eligible to earn up to $5,330 per month in insurance coverage for a family of four. The program typically helps low-income people who don't qualify for Medicaid, and the state says funding will end for the program by Jan. 31 if Congress doesn’t find the money.
"We remain cautiously optimistic Congress will renew federal funding, but we want our families enrolled in CHP+ to be aware that changes may be coming and not be caught off guard should the program come to an end,” said Colorado Medicaid Director Gretchen Hammer at the time.
On Tuesday, Hickenlooper and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, both Democrats, held a press call to discuss the ramifications should Congress not restore the funding, and pleaded with the congressional bodies to do something.
“These are families in pretty dire situations being faced with potentially Draconian decisions,” Hickenlooper said. “Congress has got to recognize that anxiety and fear have real costs in people’s lives, and saying, ‘We’re going to get this done in a few more weeks,’—how many more details are there to hammer out? We’ve all seen this coming. Let’s just get this done.”
Colorado is among the states that would be the first to see their federal funding for the program run out, the governors said Tuesday. Oregon, on the other hand, has more leeway, Brown said. But both were adamant that a funding fix shouldn’t be pushed off despite Congress needing to come up with a new funding package for the government by the end of the week, at least, and possibly later this month as well.
“It should not wait until the end of January. It shouldn’t be drawn out longer than it needs to be,” Hickenlooper said.
Still, the state is preparing to try and use what funds it does have to help the most at-risk people covered by CHP+, Hickenlooper said, should federal funding run out. But even that, he said, was difficult.
“The list isn’t a good list….It’s hard to imagine which are the most-at-risk, in terms of kids,” he said. “That’s a terrible, terrible situation to be in and a terrible process to endure.”
Hickenlooper added that he was “hopeful” that insurance providers in the state “will stand by us and help share the cost, and get at least a couple months—two or three months—before we have to go to more dire solutions.”
He said that since Colorado has a relatively-low tax burden compared to other states, Colorado would have to go to its Joint Budget Committee to find any new financing in the event of federal funds drying up, which Hickenlooper said added up to about $315 million “if we continue as it goes forward.”
He said that number is comprised of about $159 million directly for CHP+, plus an additional $144 million for the Title XXI Medicaid expansion program and a few million for other CHP+ costs.
“We’re just beginning to look at the list and find out—where is the break point of what we’d have to come up with,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s certainly in the tens of millions of dollars per month, and until we have that information and look at it, it’s hard to predict which pregnancy is going to be most in need of medical attention.”
“Often times, things look like they’re going great, and things take a turn for the worst,” Hickenlooper continued. “It’s like making impossible decisions to cut people off the list of who's eligible for CHIP, like the movie ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ where you have to pick who lives or who dies.”
In the call, Hickenlooper lamented what he called stalling on the measure by some in the GOP.
“The history of the program, it was supported by Republicans and Democrats—Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy—it was built on a bipartisan platform, which is why it’s so frustrating why Republicans want to create this logjam,” Hickenlooper said. “We know there are the votes in the Senate and we know there are the votes in the House.”
Hickenlooper praises Bennet-Gardner cosponsored bill
But he praised Colorado’s two senators, Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, for the bill the pair cosponsored just days after CHIP funding expired that would restore funding for the program through 2022. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sponsored the bill, the KIDS Act of 2017, ahead of the October expiration.
“Cory Gardner has always supported it; Bennet has been outspoken from the beginning and has been emphatic about his support for it,” Hickenlooper said. “This is a bipartisan issue that shouldn’t get to the point where it becomes part of a poker game with something to be traded.”
“This should be the one thing—the children, the future of this country—should be the one thing all of us can agree should be a priority in funding,” he added.
“The 75,000 families in Colorado who rely on the CHIP program need peace of mind to ensure their kids have access to health care so they can lead full, healthy lives,” a spokeswoman for Bennet said last week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to push to bring the measure out of the Senate Finance Committee, where it was sent upon introduction.
Gardner agreed Tuesday that CHIP needed to be “reauthorized immediately,” and said he was urging the Senate to pass the five-year CHIP extension either on its own or in the spending bill Congress will have to pass to avoid a shutdown.
“If it’s not voted on in standalone legislation I’m urging my colleagues to include it in the spending measure that Congress will vote on at the end of the month,” Gardner told Denver7. “Senator Bennet and I have been very vocal about the need to address this. No mother in Colorado should have to worry about her child not having the care they need.”
A House Republican staffer told Denver7 Tuesday that the House is likely to vote on a stop-gap resolution Wednesday or Thursday to fund the government from Dec. 8-22, and said that version would allow the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to give states needing CHIP funding before the end of the year extra money.
Hickenlooper said he hadn’t spoken to Ohio Gov. John Kasich—the Republican with whom he campaigned extensively about the Affordable Care Act while congressional Republicans were trying to repeal the law—about CHIP funding, but said, “I guarantee you he’s formally supporting CHIP.”
But he and Brown agreed that most governors from both parties were in agreement that Congress needed to act soon.
“We’ve had conversations with multiple governor’s offices, Democrats and Republicans, [and] folks are extremely supportive of this program. They understand it’s instrumental,” Brown said.
And Hickenlooper said he didn’t think partisanship over health care and disagreements about the Affordable Care Act should get in the way of funding the program.
“The entire country is spending too much money on health care, but that doesn’t mean we should roll back coverage or compromise the quality of health care we give,” he said. “But there’s a way. We are strongly and firmly convinced we can find a way to control costs without compromising quality.”
"We're all in the same predicament," Hickenlooper added, "and we're all scratching our heads saying how did we get to this point?"