Children’s insurance funds in peril: Local groups look at possible impact

A significant source of health funding for some local families and organizations is on uncertain ground.

Congress missed its deadline this weekend to re-authorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a federal program that offers health insurance to children and pregnant mothers whose family incomes are slightly higher than the federal poverty limit. Every state has some unspent money that it can use while it waits for new federal funds to come; the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission projected in July that Virginia will not run out of its funding until March 2018.

But Joe Flores, deputy secretary of Health and Human Resources for the state, said that Virginia is already preparing for the possibility that the funding will not come.

“[The Department of Medical Assistance Services] is currently beginning the planning process” in case the funding dries out, Flores said.

He said that Virginia will start sending notifications to people enrolled in the program in December if Congress does not pass a bill re-authorizing the funding. That puts Virginia in a better place than a few states, like Arizona, that are projected to lose their funding entirely by December.

The potential loss of CHIP funding is also causing Warren County Public Schools to start planning, according to Michael Hirsch, director of special services for the district.

“The special services department has been meeting to look at other resources that could be brought to bear to support the students behaviorally and emotionally if [CHIP funding] were to decrease,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch said that CHIP funds several counseling and behavioral support programs that Warren County schools use to treat at-risk students. Those programs – therapeutic day treatment services, behavior treatment services and intensive in-home counseling services – serve “a couple hundred students,” Hirsch said.

“If the children can’t access the insurance, then they can’t access the services,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch said that if the school district loses CHIP funding, it will have some existing staff members provide the services. But the district won’t be replacing the money CHIP provided them with.

“We’ll have to use existing resources – there are no additional resources – to support our students emotionally and behaviorally, but we are prepared to do that,” Hirsch said.

He said that he was optimistic that the Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia would continue to provide the district with funds for the behavioral health programs.

That optimism was echoed by Pam Murphy, executive director of the Shenandoah Community Health Clinic. Murphy said that CHIP plays a large role in keeping her organization on good financial footing.

According to Murphy, about one-quarter of the people who receive dental services through the organization are insured through CHIP.

“The reality is, it would significantly impact our ability to help everybody – both the uninsured and Medicaid recipients,” Murphy said. “We’d have to cut back our hours if we could get (Medicaid and CHIP) reimbursement for fewer people.”

The CHIP funding would also affect the services the community health clinic could provide at its school-based clinic in Ashby Lee Elementary School in Quicksburg  at least in the long run.

“We’ve got some grant funds right now to help the youth on the medical and the counseling side of things, but those grant funds will run out through the course of the next six months or so,” Murphy said. “So we kind of need that money to be in place to start being able to bill once that happens.”

But Murphy is nonetheless optimistic that the funding will be extended for the program. In fact, she hasn’t planned yet for the possibility that the funding will run out.

“I think and hope that [Congress will] recognize the value across the country to the most vulnerable part of the population–the children in all the communities,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that she expects to begin making plans “in the next month or so” if Congress fails to extend funding for the program by that point.

Congress has made some action toward extending funding for CHIP. The Senate has passed a bill that would extend funding for the program for five years. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is set to hold a markup hearing today on a similar measure.

But Flores said that even if the funding extensions pass through Congress and are signed by the president, Virginia is likely to receive less funding as part of the final bill.

“I think that’s the best-case scenario right now,” Flores said. “If Congress re-authorizes [CHIP], I think they’re still going to reduce the funding to the state.”

That will leave more decisions about funding for Virginia’s implementation of CHIP up to the General Assembly. But even then, Hirsch said he is optimistic that the district will continue to receive funding through the program.

Hirsch said he thinks the state government will continue to provide help for what he described as the most “fragile” 25 percent of the student population.

“I am optimistic,” Hirsch said.