SALT LAKE CITY — When Pleasant Grove mother Sonja Reynolds visited Washington, D.C., to share her own family's reliance on the threatened Children's Health Insurance Program, she unexpectedly met face-to-face with the policy's original author: her own senator.
The chance meeting happened Tuesday after Reynolds dropped off a note at Sen. Orrin Hatch's office to give him "a little push" to support CHIP, which provides health insurance coverage to 9 million kids.
"On our way out of the office, (Hatch) happened to be walking by with a staffer," said Reynolds, who was there with her son Jason, 13, and daughter Kelsey, 11.
The senator told Reynolds, "You guys hang in there. It's going to be OK," she said.
"His influence, I'm sure, is very key in getting CHIP re-funded, so I did feel very encouraged after that," she told the Deseret News on Wednesday.
Like other parents whose children are covered by CHIP, Reynolds has been in need of some encouragement lately.
She uses CHIP insurance to protect her family from the exorbitant cost of medical bills incurred by treatment for Jason's and Kelsey's Crohn's disease, for which even routine care can cost up to $20,000 every two months.
But the program's funding expired Sept. 30, and despite numerous promises by members of Congress to keep it running long term, it's not yet clear when or how that could happen.
A bill passed by Congress late Thursday to keep most of the federal government funded for another month also provided a temporary reprieve to a number of health programs in danger of running out of money, most notably CHIP.
Since Oct. 1, states have been operating their programs with leftover funds provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. But nearly half of the states were projected to run out of money entirely by the end of January, putting health coverage for nearly 2 million children at risk by that point.
The funding provided by Congress for CHIP — $2.85 billion — is for six months, but it is back-dated to Oct. 1, so it will run out at the end of March.
In Utah, where CHIP provides coverage to nearly 20,000 children, the program was previously expected to be able to last through the end of January without new money, prompting state health officials to consider when to inform parents about the risk of their children's health coverage lapsing.
"It's really important for our nation to feel like we can actually count on our government to be ethical, at least when it comes to children," Reynolds said Wednesday. "There's a lot of distrust and disappointment in government and politicians, and this is just one of those issues that should be so clear cut … and it's just being used as a little pawn. And it's just reprehensible, actually."
Nationwide, roughly 9 million children are estimated to have health insurance coverage through CHIP, which is available to Americans ages 18 and under whose households earn low to modest incomes but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.
A bill renewing CHIP long term passed the House of Representatives in November largely along partisan lines, but it's not expected to survive — at least as is — in the Senate.
Hatch has also introduced a bill to renew CHIP funding for five years, but his office has so far declined to announce what offsets if any would ultimately pay for it, and it remains unclear how it might combine with other legislation. Historically, congressional reauthorization of CHIP funding has passed by large bipartisan majorities.
Despite her frustration, Reynolds took a positive tack in her visits to Hatch's office and that of Utah's other Republican senator, Mike Lee.
She said she told Hatch during their encounter that she and her family have nicknamed him "grandpa CHIP," an homage to his creation of the program in 1997. The comment "completely changed his demeanor," Reynolds said.
"I wish I could explain it better. He just went from (businesslike), political man to down to his roots and, 'Oh, yeah. That's why I'm doing this job,'" she said. "Deep down … some of them need to be reminded of why it's good to do this."
Hatch told the Deseret News on Wednesday that he was glad he got a chance to talk with Reynolds.
“It was a great blessing to meet Sonja and get to speak to Jason and Kelsey, who are wonderful kids," the senator said in a statement. "I’m thrilled the CHIP program has helped their family, and as I assured them earlier this week, I am going to make sure CHIP remains funded for the millions of children in the country that rely on it.”
The reason Reynolds was in the nation's capital in the first place was to deliver a presentation Tuesday morning at the Russell Senate Office Building, where she joined with moms from across the country in pleading with lawmakers to hear their stories.
"Without CHIP coverage, our family is in one of the situations where I could be forced to give up my income, whether to stop working so my children can be approved for Medicaid and stay alive through their treatments that way, or to give up more than my monthly income to pay for their health coverage every month," Reynolds told her audience there.
"It's not a situation any American family should be in. We should not be forced to give up our incomes to keep our children alive."
Reynolds, a French horn performer and instructor whose husband works for a music instrument manufacturer, said she doesn't have private insurance options that would cover her children's Crohn's disease treatment, while also allowing for that routine care to happen in Utah and keeping the cost of care manageable.
The discussion where Reynolds presented was organized by First Focus, Family Voices, and the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, all health advocacy groups, in partnership with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn. Mothers from Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, West Virginia and New York also presented there.
"Invest in our nation's true future. Invest in the children to save CHIP and save children's lives," Reynolds told those gathered.
Jessie Mandle, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, praised Reynolds for sharing her family's story about their vital need for CHIP.10 comments on this story
"I thought Sonja's remarks really captured the sentiment that many families are feeling, that want peace of mind that their kids' coverage is safe," Mandle said Wednesday.
She added that "Congress keeps kicking this down the road," and "there's a lot of uncertainty right now … about what they're going to do."
"That's why Sonja's remarks were so great too, just having a family speak on the impact and what it means for (them)," Mandle said.
Contributing: Associated Press