Tester blasts Congress for not funding child insurance, community health centers

by Missoula Current, Martin Kidston

If Congress can pass tax breaks for multinational corporations, it should be able to find money to fund an expired health insurance program for children, Montana Sen. Jon Tester said Wednesday.

In a conference call with state media, Tester expressed frustration over the partisan politics that have embroiled Congress and the body’s inability to pass common-sense legislation, such as funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Community Health Center Fund.

Combined, the two programs serve 125,000 Montanans, but without a funding renewal in Congress, they’re expected to go dark as early as January, leaving children uninsured and rural residents unable to access health care at their local clinic.

“The Community Health Center Fund and Healthy Montana Kids make a real difference in our communities, and they shouldn’t be used as political leverage,” Tester said. “Healthy Montana Kids not only provides families with peace of mind, it provides lifesaving care, and that care is provided by our community health centers.”

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which funds Healthy Montana Kids, provides health coverage to 24,000 children in the state. When founded nearly 20 years ago, Tester said, it represented a popular bipartisan initiative.

But that cooperation, he added, has faded from the nation’s political landscape.

“It has tragically fallen victim to politics,” Tester said. “This fund is set to run out of money in January, leaving families without health insurance in the new year. If Congress can jam through a partisan plan to give big corporations a permanent tax break, they should also be able to find the money to ensure Montana families don’t lose their health insurance.”

Montana is one of a handful of states that will run out of funding for CHIP by the end of January. Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation urging it take action before it’s too late.

Tester said he has written a bill that would fund CHIP for five years. The federal government is set to run out of money on Dec. 22, and Tester is pushing to get his bill included in any replacement measure that seeks to keep the government running.

“I’ve got a bill to do it, but we don’t do much of that stuff any more in D.C.,” Tester said. “(CHIP) should have been fixed at the end of September when it actually ran out. The longer it goes, the more uncertainty it gives people, the more challenges it presents for your local hospitals, and the more challenges it presents for local families.”

Tester also expressed concern over Congress’ lack of funding for the Community Health Center Fund. Local health centers provide care to more than 100,000 of Montanans, though many of those centers could be forced to close if the program isn’t renewed.

“These facilities rely on the Community Health Center Fund to keep the lights on to provide life-saving care for their communities,” Tester said. “But Congress also has allowed this fund to expire, leaving community health centers across the state struggling to keep their doors open.”

Tester maintained his opposition to the tax reform plans crafted by the Republican majority in Congress, saying GOP leaders made no effort and showed no interest in working across the aisle to create a bipartisan solution.

The Congressional Budget Office projects the plan will add $1.5 trillion to the national debt.

“Responsibility in reducing our debt is trimming the fat and reducing the budget, not throwing kids and their families off their insurance to pay for a tax cut for private jet owners,” Tester said. “Politicians voted for this handout to the wealthy while health insurance for tens of thousands of Montana kids and funding for Montana’s community health centers dry up.”