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Ben Lockhart, Deseret News
A plastic bin filled with 20,000 chocolate chips — and labeled with a message stating "one choc chip for every Utah child waiting for Senator Hatch to do the right thing" — sits outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Alliance for a Better Utah supporters, asking that Sen. Orrin Hatch prioritize renewal of the Children's Health Insurance Program, visited his Salt Lake office Monday equipped with a petition — and 20,000 chocolate chips to "sweeten the deal."

"We have 20,000 chocolate chips to remind him of all the Utah children waiting on him to take action and who rely on this program for their health and well-being," Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for Better Utah, a left-leaning policy advocacy organization, told reporters.

Hatch's staffers couldn't accept the chocolate chips due to office security policy against accepting food deliveries. But Matheson said she's still hopeful the message got across.

"They keep saying it's going to happen and it's not happening," she said of Congress' promises to renew the program. "Jan. 31 is less than two months away ... (and for parents) it's terrifying to be staring down less than two months and know your child might not be covered."

The petition, signed by more than 650 people, urges Hatch "to make passing CHIP funding a priority, as you have repeatedly promised that CHIP funding would be renewed."

"Remember the children and families in need across our state and the nation who rely on this program for their health and well-being," the petition says.

Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock told the Deseret News that the senator is sensitive to the issues raised by Better Utah.

"Senator Hatch appreciates hearing this input from constituents, particularly on the importance of this critical program, and looks forward to seeing a long-term funding extension pass with strong bipartisan support in the coming weeks," Whitlock said in an email.

Matheson said each chocolate chip was meant to represent one of nearly 20,000 Utah children who benefit from the Children's Health Insurance Program. About 8.9 million children across the United States were enrolled in CHIP as of fiscal year 2016, according to an estimate from health care policy think tank Kaiser Family Foundation.

The program provides federal health coverage for children in households with low-to-modest annual incomes but earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid. To qualify, a CHIP recipient's household must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Hatch helped create CHIP in 1997, and the program's funding has been reauthorized three times since with strong bipartisan majorities.

But the senator has not been exempt from criticisms levied at Congress by health policy advocates who say he and others are tempting fate by putting off reauthorization. Funding for the program expired Sept. 30 and states are grappling with how long they can continue running CHIP before the money runs out. In Utah, that funding is expected to last through the end of January, said Kolbi Young, Utah Department of Health spokeswoman.

"There is some concern with us informing families too soon, because we don't want them going to find alternative coverage, for example an employer-sponsored plan," Young said. "If CHIP is reauthorized, they would not be (eligible) to come back."

She added that private plans generally don't carry the same financial advantages as CHIP, such as out-of-pocket maximum protections for poor families, which is why the preference is to keep them on the federal program.

But it remains possible that a lack of funding could result in lapses in coverage, she said, and the state wants to help families make decisions that would avoid such a lapse if they so choose. By the end of December, Young said, the Department of Health will decide whether to send out notices about potential coverage loss or wait into January.

Comments criticized

Better Utah's petition also criticizes Hatch for his comments on the Senate floor Dec. 1 while debating with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, over what to do about CHIP legislation.

"We're going to do CHIP, there's no question about it in my mind. It's got to be done the right way. But the reason CHIP's having trouble is 'cause we don't have any money anymore," Hatch said at the time. "To just add more and more spending, and more and more spending, and you can look at the rest of the bill for more and more spending."

He later added, "I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves, but would if they could."

"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," Hatch said, but clarified that he thought CHIP is one of the federal programs "which are good," while others are "lousy" or "well-intentioned."

Better Utah says Hatch's comments "begin to show the priorities of our senator by placing the wealthy and corporations ahead of children" in light of his recent support for a sweeping tax reform bill.

"Your recent comments on the Senate floor ... show a serious lack of understanding about the recipients of targeted federal safety net programs," its petition states.

Hatch's CHIP bill

Hatch's KIDS Act of 2017 would extend the program's flow of federal dollars for five years. He touted that bill's progress in a statement Monday to the Deseret News.

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"That we were able to develop, markup and report out a long-term CHIP bill in the Finance Committee in the current political environment speaks volumes about this program and the lives it has touched in our nation," Hatch said.

He added that "we're going to build on our committee work and push to get this legislation through with strong, bipartisan support by the year's end."

The U.S. House of Representatives also reauthorized funds for CHIP in early November, but it's unclear what provisions of that bill — which passed largely along partisan lines due to disputes over how to pay for it — would be reconciled with Hatch's legislation.