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Congress recently let federal funding expire for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance to 9 million children nationwide.
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Congress recently let federal funding expire for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance to 9 million children nationwide.

Colorado officials have drafted a letter warning tens of thousands of state residents that the children in their care may soon lose coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP. It’s a sad message, and a sad testament to Congress’ inability to set aside partisan politics long enough to help protect the most vulnerable among us.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill failed to renew funding for CHIP by Sept. 30, and unless they act soon, states will run out of money for the program by next spring at the latest. Colorado’s funds would be depleted by Jan. 31, a reality that’s prompted the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to prepare an early warning to the families of recipients. It’s scheduled to go in the mail this week if funding is not renewed.

“Ask your doctor’s or dentist’s office for the names of the private insurance plans they accept,” the letter states. “Write this information down in case you need to shop for a private insurance plan.”

Therein lies the problem: CHIP was established 20 years ago to help families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t earn enough to obtain private insurance that doesn’t bust their household budget. It was a success in that regard, helping lower the share of uninsured children from close to 14 percent in 1997 to 4.9 percent in 2015, when it was last renewed by Congress.

Even with the arrival of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the cost of private insurance remains out of reach for many of the 90,000 children and pregnant women who currently receive coverage from CHIP in Colorado. The news will be no better for the 9 million children who now have free or low-cost access to routine checkups, immunization, and other medical, dental and vision care through CHIP.

The program certainly isn’t perfect, costing about $14 billion a year. Addressing CHIP’s flaws requires a scalpel and a skilled hand, but lawmakers have brought a sledgehammer and a slow, lazy swing. Rather than reach a compromise that might gradually lower costs, most Republicans and Democrats are poised to let the program die if they don’t get their way. That would consign millions of children to limited health care simply because they’re poor.

Colorado’s U.S. senators — Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet — have shown leadership in co-sponsoring a bill that would extend federal funding five years but phase out increases in funding that went into effect as part of the ACA. It’s not the best solution, but it would prevent children from taking the brunt of the disagreement.

When the CHIP program was introduced, it was a bipartisan effort that enjoyed popular support. It still does. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that six-in-10 Americans think reauthorization of CHIP should be a priority. Numerous children’s advocates and medical professionals, including Children’s Hospital Colorado, are also urging continuation of the program.

Unfortunately, lawmakers are too preoccupied with trying to score points against one another to renew CHIP. Their intransigence is the sole reason a warning letter is poised for delivery to Coloradans.

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