Federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — an initiative that provides basic health care for nearly 20,000 Utah children — lapsed Sept. 30. In the months since, CHIP has become a contentious issue amid broader debates about health care and tax reform. Congressional leaders have been unable to garner bipartisan support for the program.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of the original authors of the bill that created CHIP, is well positioned to depoliticize debates about the program and renew its funding. Until the end of the year, funding for CHIP is temporarily ensured by the budget stopgap signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 8. However, its long-term security causes uncertainty among recipients and others who support children's health care.
Senate and House leadership can show unequivocal commitment to the program and convince their colleagues to renew its funding. Hatch should not have come under fire for comments he made about CHIP during a tax debate in early December. In his speech on the Senate floor, Hatch sought to praise CHIP while condemning “lousy” federal programs that deplete the budget while perpetuating dependency. However, his comments failed to create a clear distinction between these two ideas, making it appear to some as though he were criticizing CHIP beneficiaries. He has not.
Hatch said, “I happen to think CHIP has done a terrific job for people who really needed the help. I’ve taken the position here for my whole Senate service: I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could.” He then added, “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves — won’t lift a finger — and expect the federal government to do everything.”
MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough conflated Hatch’s description of those who “won’t lift a finger” and rely on welfare with his comments about CHIP beneficiaries on Twitter. His tweet gained traction on TV and on social media, though he eventually deleted it for being “misleading.” While this did not accurately convey Hatch’s intent, what is important to note is that in the social media fallout from Hatch’s speech, CHIP was readily politicized among broader debates over both the federal budget and health care programs.
Hatch closed his comments by saying, “We’re going to get CHIP through. There is no question about that. I’m going to see that it gets through." If he is committed to passing CHIP in January, he will need to ensure his public commentary on the program elevates it above partisan squabbling. He might focus on the millions of American children — and tens of thousands of Utah children — who depend on CHIP funding.
This week, local advocates delivered a clear plastic bucket of 20,000 chocolate chips — one for every child in Utah insured by the program — to Hatch’s Utah offices. The clever advocacy will no doubt remind Hatch that citizens across Utah, and around the country, are scrutinizing his efforts in the coming weeks to ensure vulnerable children across America maintain their health care.