Alabama’s health insurance program for children isn’t broke yet, but state officials say there’s growing worry now that Congress has failed to pass a bill to fund it.
“Right now we’re conducting business as usual, but there’s craziness going on with health care providers, who want to know what’s going on,” said Cathy Caldwell, director of ALLKids, the state’s health insurance program for children.
Some 80,000 children – whose parents are near the poverty line, but make too much to qualify for Medicaid – are covered by ALLKids, a program the state adopted 20 years ago. The program is paid for entirely by the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which provides similar coverage in other states.
CHIP has historically enjoyed bipartisan support, but this year Congress didn’t renew funding for it. Lawmakers didn’t vote against CHIP – they never held a vote on it at all, letting the program slide into a new fiscal year on Sunday with no money set aside for it.
“It’s just a shameful neglect of a pressing issue for millions of children,” said Jim Carnes, an analyst for the group Alabama Arise, which often weighs in on health care issues.
Carnes said the program was likely held out as a bargaining tactic as lawmakers debated last week’s failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Obamacare repeal failed, but lawmakers never took up CHIP as a separate issue.
Alabama’s program has enough money on hand to continue through March, Caldwell said. If Congress doesn’t act soon, she said, the state will have to start the process of shutting the program down. The likely first step: sending notices to parents to let them know their children’s health insurance is going away.
“Right now we’re not sending notices to parents,” she said. “Providers will continue to get paid. But if Congress doesn’t continue funding soon, we’ll have to act.”
There’s a reason Caldwell is reluctant to send those notices before she’s certain. At least one doctor in the state told patients on Monday that they’d no longer accept ALLKids patients, Caldwell said. She said that’s probably because they doctor believed the program is already out of money.
State budget officials have had a wary eye on the CHIP debate for months. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, warned earlier this year that a CHIP lapse could blow a hole in the state’s budget. On Monday he said it will be a health care problem, not a budget problem, if federal funding lapses.
“If they don’t reauthorize it, there’s no way we or any other state could pick that up,” said Clouse, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Attempts to reach U.S. Rep Mike Rogers, R-Saks, for comment were unsuccessful.
Clouse said Congress could take up the issue as early as Wednesday.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said. “It’s been like a yo-yo for the past several weeks.
CHIP covers about 9 million kids nationwide. Alabama was one of the first states to set up a children’s health insurance program once the federal government made money available.