Congress: Continue CHIP and save Texas children

More than a decade ago, a young member of my church, 14-year-old Devante Johnson, was battling kidney cancer. He was previously covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program and was receiving cancer treatment. His mother, a hard-working paralegal, earned too much to qualify for Medicaid in Texas but too little to afford expensive cancer treatment for her son. CHIP was created to fill the gap so that children in circumstances like these would qualify for assistance.

However, the state of Texas, which administers the program, had put onerous requirements on continued qualification for CHIP, causing him to wrongfully lose coverage. Despite his mother doing everything in her power to reverse the error, Devante was unable to access treatment for months.

As a member of the Texas Legislature at the time, I was able to get Devante his needed cancer treatments at the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. But four months of lapsed coverage and treatment made it too late to save him. Devante passed away in 2007.

There was still time to save children who could find themselves in Devante’s shoes. In the 2007 legislative session, I filed House Bill 109, which changed state law to remove the restrictions that directly led to Devante’s coverage lapse. The law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and expanded the coverage for more than 130,000 children.

Gridlock in Washington now threatens not only to erase the work we did in Austin, but to end the program altogether. Congress allowed the deadline for reauthorization to pass without action and CHIP authorization expired September 30th.

This is a problem with a solution. In fact, the solution is rather simple: A bipartisan bill to fund CHIP through 2022 is currently before Congress.

However, its renewal has been caught up in a political tug-of-war and used as collateral for other political agendas. Members of Congress have attempted to tie CHIP to unpalatable political goals. As a result, CHIP reauthorization has stalled and its funding is nearly depleted. The state of Colorado has already sent letters to CHIP recipient families alerting them of the program’s end.

The Texas program will run out of funds on January 31st. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has requested $90 million from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — at best a stopgap measure that will extend the program through February.

If the agency refuses the request, families with children on CHIP will receive cancellation notices among their Christmas cards. Even if funding is extended, those families may be receiving cancellation notices in February.

In either scenario, more than 450,000 children in Texas will lose their health care in early 2018 if Congress fails to act. These are the children whose working parents are making too much money for Medicaid and too little to afford exorbitant private health insurance premiums.

I have left the Texas Legislature and now serve as mayor of Houston, home to the largest concentration of health care institutions in the world. Some of the most significant advancements of our time occur at the Texas Medical Center. Newly discovered treatments, procedures and technologies that will save and improve the lives of millions across the globe originate in our city.

My heart breaks when I think about the fact that thousands and thousands of my youngest constituents will not be able to benefit from those advancements because of congressional inaction.

How many of the 78,000 children on CHIP in Harris County will face the same challenges in lapsed coverage as Devante Johnson if the program ends? What does the future hold for the nearly 10,000 Harris County expectant mothers on CHIP’s perinatal program, which assists with prenatal and some postpartum care, and the children they are carrying?

HHSC has said letters informing CHIP recipient families of the program’s termination will go out soon if nothing changes. Congress must act now to prevent that from happening.

It is unacceptable that in a city with such rich medical resources, the children of hardworking parents are denied access to even basic medical care. It is intolerable that this circumstance exists because Congress was unable to reach a political solution to a life-or-death problem. The lives and health of millions of children across the nation, thousands and thousands in Houston, are too important for Congress to ignore because of political agendas.

Texas learned this hard lesson a decade ago. I can never forget Devante Johnson, his mother and the fact this tragedy was preventable. Congress should remember him and the over 9 million children like him whose lives depend on CHIP, and take action now.

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