Time running out for program that covers 24,000 Montana kids

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Katheryn Houghton

Montana’s health department is drafting letters to the families of 24,000 kids who rely on federal dollars for health coverage. The message is simple: Their kids will lose their plans come Feb. 1 unless Congress steps in.

Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, is the net that catches families making too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford insurance.

“You’re talking about Montana’s working class, the farmers, the concrete pourers,” said Belgrade resident Darcy Saffer, whose four kids rely on CHIP.

“We’ve known there will be times when my husband and I aren’t insured – we never thought there would be a time when our kids wouldn’t be.”

In Montana, 98 percent of CHIP funding comes from federal payments, which expired Sept. 30.

Lawmakers have said the program is a non-partisan issue. But in the two months and now nine days since those dollars ran dry, Congress hasn’t agreed on a model that keeps CHIP going.

On a recent afternoon, Saffer’s 10-year-old daughter Faith ran from her school bus, up her home’s front porch steps to scrunch her nose against the window looking into the house. Her two little brothers waited on the other side, their laughter fogging the window.

Saffer raised her voice over their squeals as she described waiting for that letter from the health department.

CHIP is what helped Saffer and her husband Sky afford glasses for their 11-year-old earlier this year.

It allowed them to enter Faith into speech therapy programs when they discovered she was Autistic, which helped Faith learn how to say “mom” just before she turned 4.

Today, CHIP pays for the programs that teach Faith to recognize social norms that her mind wouldn’t naturally pick up – programs that otherwise cost between $79 and $106 a lesson.

“[CHIP] has meant we’ve never had to sit here with a sick kid and wonder, ‘Do we wait it out?'” Saffer said. “We’ve never worried whether we will be able to pay rent when a kid has strep and we need antibiotics.”

Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson with the state health department, said if CHIP ceases in February, parents will have the option to apply for coverage through healthcare.gov.

“Unless Congress takes action, there are 24,000 Montana children at risk for losing their health coverage,” he said. “That’s the bottom line and why this is so important.”

Previous media reports cited 45,000 kids at risk of losing their health coverage, though Ebelt said those reports were erroneous.

On Thursday, Congress voted to avert a partial government shutdown through a spending bill that covers the next two weeks. In that, they released some money back to CHIP for states running out of resources to keep their program going.

But that doesn’t help Montana since the state is set to run out of CHIP money Jan. 31.

In a statement to the Chronicle, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he was happy to support the stopgap measure that came out Thursday while negotiations continue.

“Families across Montana and our country rely on CHIP to keep their children healthy, which is why I support the program,” he said. “I will keep working hard toward a long-term reauthorization.”

In an interview with the Chronicle on Friday afternoon, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said the fact Congress hasn’t agreed to a new plan speaks to its “dysfunction.”

Tester said he feels Congress already has a long-term solution – a bill called Keeping Kids’ Insurance Dependable and Secure (KIDS Act), of which he’s a cosponsor. It would extend CHIP funding for five years and cost between $21 billion and $25 billion annually through fiscal year 2022.

But the hangup is Republicans and Democrats don’t agree where that money would come from.

“My fear is we’ll be expected to vote for a bad bill because CHIP legislation is on it,” Tester said, adding he thinks leaders in Congress could try and cut spending for Medicare or Medicaid as a trade for CHIP.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that we are putting Montana families in this position,” he said.

Saffer is a full-time student. Her husband delivers oil and concrete throughout Montana. She said she knows some people will judge her family for relying on a federal program.

“We come from generations of poverty, and we’re trying to climb out of that,” she said. “My husband works six days a week and I’m finishing my degree and raising four children. We’re far from lazy. Our stories aren’t that different from others on CHIP.”

Friday morning, Sarah Krumm of Bozeman was going over her options to cover her 4-month-old if CHIP disappears.

“This is my first child, so it’s all a brand new experience for me,” she said. “I’m looking at how expensive all of these wellness checks are, vaccines – I could not afford any of this without CHIP.”

Krumm has a full-time job at a local church and her husband is a full-time political science student. She could get health coverage through her work plan, “but most of my paycheck would go into that.”

She said when she first learned about CHIP when she was pregnant, she felt like it was a safe option. Now, she said she feels like her baby’s coverage is in the middle of another political tug-of-war.