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Harkin Non-Committal on Preservation of CHIP

Though it’s been little mentioned throughout the health reform debate, there’s a showdown brewing between House and Senate Democrats over the future of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, previously know as SCHIP.

House lawmakers have proposed to do away with the program at the end of 2013, transitioning millions of kids instead to private plans on the exchange. Senate lawmakers have taken a different tack, arguing that CHIP offers both coverage and cost advantages that private companies can’t (or simply won’t) replicate. The Senate bill would reauthorize CHIP through 2019.

Today, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) became the latest lawmaker to weigh in on the distinction. The chairman of the Senate health committee was quick to point out that he isn’t familiar with the CHIP repeal proposed by the House. Still, he told local Iowa reporters that he wouldn’t oppose such a repeal if the shift to the exchange plans wouldn’t harm kids’ coverage.

“My bottom line is just to make sure that all the kids get good coverage,” Harkin said in response to a question from my colleague Lynda Waddington at The Iowa Independent. “If this [the House repeal] is better for kids, and they can show it’s more effective — and cost effective — fine. I’ll go with that. If not, then I’ll stick with the CHIP program.”

Under the House bill, White House health officials would be required to study the shift from CHIP to the exchange, weighing the advantages of each program in terms of cost and benefits. The idea is to ensure that children won’t be moved into lower-quality health plans.

As many children’s health care advocates have warned, though, there’s nothing in the House proposal that would block the transition, even if the White House analysis found that private plans would offer inferior benefits. Such a safeguard was included in the legislation that passed the Energy and Commerce Committee in July, but budget restraints caused Democratic leaders to scrap that trigger in the final bill.

“It’s probably going to be a conference item,” Harkin said Tuesday of the CHIP repeal. And he’s probably right about that.

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