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Rockefeller Salvages the CHIP Program

A little after midnight, nearing the end of yesterday’s marathon health reform debate in the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) had the stage, and the audience fell strangely silent. Rockefeller talked about his experiences as a VISTA volunteer in Appalachia decades ago; he talked about the destitution and absence of health care in the region; and finally, with tears in his eyes, he talked about the need to preserve Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for the sake of people like those.

Under the finance panel’s bill, Medicaid would be expanded, but the CHIP program would phase out as those kids transitioned into insurance plans on newly proposed state insurance exchanges. Rockefeller argued the need to keep those youngsters in CHIP, rather than pushing them to the exchange, “where they’re at the mercy of people who will have them for lunch.” He was talking about private insurance companies.

The West Virginia Democrat, who chairs the Finance Committee’s health subpanel, sponsored an amendment to keep CHIP as it is. “I don’t think there’s any reason to dismantle a program that works,” he said.

Republicans were unmoved. Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the panel’s senior Republican, said that keeping kids in a public program rather than moving them to private coverage “is contrary to everything we’ve been working for.”

Yet a report released yesterday seems to bolster Rockefeller’s argument. According to researchers at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a financial consulting firm, shifting kids from CHIP to the exchange would put increased cost burdens on those families. Specifically, the study found that children currently enrolled in median CHIP plans living at 175 percent of poverty pay nothing for their care, while those living at 225 percent of poverty pay about 2 percent of treatment costs. By contrast, those same kids getting coverage through private insurers on the exchange would pay between 5 percent and 35 percent of health costs, respectively, “greatly increasing their financial burden and leaving low-income children worse off as a result of health reform,” the researchers noted.

Children’s health care advocates quickly jumped on the findings as reason to preserve CHIP. Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group that commissioned the study, said the findings confirm that CHIP provides kids “the best, most affordable care.”

“Congress should be fixing what is broken and building on what works,” Lesley said in a statement. “CHIP works for kids and we should be expanding this program, not phasing it out.”

The vote approving Rockefeller’s amendment was 13 to 9, with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) the only member crossing party lines. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) remained neutral, voting “present.”

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