SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch and local health care activists agree that funding for the federal Children's Health Insurance Program should — and inevitably will — be renewed, ensuring that coverage for thousands of young Utahns will stay secure into the future.
But some activists are fretting that Congress is tempting fate by not acting fast enough to renew funding for the program, which Hatch founded through legislation he co-sponsored in 1997. That's because the latest reauthorization for funding CHIP officially expired Sunday.
"We can't wait until the last minute to do this because families are affected before actual money dries up at the end of the year," said Jason Stevenson, spokesman for the Utah Health Policy Project, an advocacy organization and federal exchange enrollment hub. "We're pretty sensitive to how this impacts people. It scares the heck out of people."
But Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said in an email this week that states "have funding to continue the program and will not run out before the new legislation passes."
"No families will be in turmoil. The bill will pass in time for funding to continue uninterrupted, and we have been in touch with state leaders throughout the process," Whitlock told the Deseret News on Tuesday.
Earlier this week, Whitlock said Utah "has funding through December," and reauthorization legislation "will pass in Congress well before that time."
Utah Division of Medicaid and Health Care Financing spokeswoman Kolbi Young confirmed that "we are federally required to provide members with adequate notice of any changes to their health coverage." Those notifications would be sent out around early November, she said, unless CHIP is reauthorized by then.
"We have enough funding to continue services through the end of the year. We will notify members 60 days prior to the end of the year if Congress does not act and reauthorize the program," Young said in an email.
Jeff Nelson, director of CHIP in Utah, sent a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Sept. 15 requesting to amend the state CHIP plan to include the following provision:
"If Congress and the president fail to appropriate sufficient funding to operate (CHIP), the state of Utah, Division of Medicaid and Health Financing, will use the remaining allocated funds to continue coverage until such funds are depleted.
"When the state determines that there are insufficient funds to provide coverage in the following month, the state will notify (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) of its intent to no longer provide CHIP eligibility and services beginning the month following the state’s determination."
Utah is one of 10 states where CHIP funding is expected to run out before next year, out of 42 states that reported data to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a California-headquartered health care think tank.
CHIP is a federal insurance program that covers people 18 years old and younger in low-income families who still make too much to qualify for Medicaid. Children must belong to families who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify for CHIP, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The most recent data from the state Medical Care Advisory Committee shows there were 19,380 children in Utah enrolled in CHIP in August. In fiscal year 2012, that number was more than 38,000, but has decreased significantly since then largely due to many children becoming covered instead by Medicaid under new enrollment regulations, the state health department previously reported.
CHIP has already been reauthorized three times since its introduction in 1997, typically by wide margins and with votes from members of both major political parties.
Stevenson decried the prospect that health officials could have no choice but to "start sending letters to consumers," something he said would surely send some people into a panic.
"That affects your life right now even if the cliff of your coverage is several months away. Nobody likes getting a letter saying your health insurance is going to end, especially (that of) your children," he said.
Stevenson said he would like to see more clarity on precisely when Congress can get reauthorization passed.
"Is this going to be a month thing or is this going to be a two-week thing?" he asked.
Stevenson also said he's worried about the prospect of the bill getting delayed if other, only faintly related legislative add-ons are put into it.
Hatch said in a statement Saturday that he wants to "advance this bill in a fiscally responsible manner so it may be signed into law as quickly as possible to ensure coverage for kids is maintained."
“This important legislation will ensure the vulnerable children and their families who depend on CHIP receive much-needed certainty by guaranteeing uninterrupted funding for the program, which has been a top priority of this committee,” Hatch said.
Whitlock didn't estimate a precise timeline for the bill's passage but said the Senate Finance Committee, which Hatch chairs, plans to put it through a markup hearing Wednesday morning.
"After the markup, the committee will vote and it will come to the (Senate) floor," Whitlock said. "Sen. Hatch would love to see a vote on it as soon as possible."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is joining Hatch in co-sponsoring the reauthorization bill, which is named the Keeping Kids' Insurance Dependable and Secure (KIDS) Act. In a statement Saturday, Wyden decried the perils of waiting too long to officially pass the reauthorization.
"Every day that passes without action following the funding deadline this Saturday means more heartache for children and families and more uncertainty for states," he said at the time. "I will be pulling out all the stops to ensure Congress keeps its promise to America’s kids.”
The bill's reauthorization is expected to continue CHIP funding through 2022.
While Stevenson is troubled by the late movement on the bill, believing that timing could cause intense worry for CHIP families whose children have major health events on the horizon next year, he said he feels confident "it will get passed."
"Sen. Hatch is a powerful ally in promoting this program. Of course, he created it," Stevenson said. "That helps. Utah's lawmakers, especially Sen. Hatch, understand the importance of funding the CHIP program for the (thousands of) Utah kids that depend on it."