The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 29, 2017 1:00 am

Health funding delay imperils kids, clinics

Congressional inaction is becoming the new normal. But Congress' failure to reauthorize federal support for community health centers and the Children's Health Insurance Program is particularly disgraceful. The situation is still salvageable – bills have been advanced to restore funding for both programs before lasting damage is done. But what does it say about the values and priorities of lawmakers who would so casually place the health care of children and the poor in jeopardy?

Though the slow response of Indiana lawmakers to the situation would suggest otherwise, these are programs that benefit thousands of Hoosiers.

The Community Health Centers Fund supports federally qualified centers, which have provided care to underserved areas since the 1960s. One of those is Fort Wayne's Neighborhood Health Clinics, which last year served 15,644 medical and dental patients who may have had no other practical way to get those services.

Since 1997, CHIP has provided health coverage for children whose families don't qualify for Medicaid but who can't afford or aren't able to obtain private health insurance. In Indiana, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, coverage for 115,000 children is at risk if current-level CHIP funding isn't renewed.

Unlike Obamacare, both of these programs have enjoyed decades of bipartisan support. No policymaker blamed them for rising health care costs or implied that their existence endangers American freedom. But on Sept. 30, lawmakers who were focused on the endless battles over Obamacare allowed funding for community health centers and CHIP to expire.

Most states, including Indiana, probably have enough funding to sustain CHIP coverage well into next year, though the money could run out in a few states by January.

“It works,” Fort Wayne's Dr. Tony GiaQuinta said in a recent video he posted on Twitter. “Ninety-five percent (of children) in this country are enrolled in some form of insurance, thanks to Medicaid and CHIP,” said GiaQuinta, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics Indiana Chapter. That facilitates “doctor visits, immunizations, caring for colds and coughs. Kids stay healthy and they avoid more expensive forms of health care, like the emergency room.”

“Now,” GiaQuinta said Wednesday, “we are leaving close to 9 million children's health insurance on the table.”

Community health centers will go over the “funding cliff” when their new fiscal year begins. For Neighborhood Health Clinics, that will be May 1.

“We're continuing to make plans for the possible funding cut,” the clinics' CEO, AngieZaegel, said Wednesday. “We're actually in the process of 2018 budgeting. We're doing two different budget proposals.”

In one, the center's federal funding is restored, and Zaegel's staff is able to continue treating the same or more low-income patients. In the other, the clinics' annual funding drops by $2.3 million, open positions remain unfilled and 3,000 clients lose access to health care.

Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly was one of several senators from both parties who had tried to raise the alarm about funding for community health centers in a letter before last month's deadline, and Tuesday, he announced his support for two bills that would reauthorize the programs. Other potential champions are slowly emerging from the state's congressional delegation, including Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, who praised CHIP during a discussion in Ossian Oct. 19, and U.S. Sen. Todd Young, who “does not want to see any Community Health Centers shuttered or kids lose their CHIP coverage,” according to his spokesman, Jay Kenworthy, who responded to an email inquiry Tuesday.

So, if the thousands in Fort Wayne and the millions in America whose health care is in jeopardy because of Congress' casual oversight are very lucky, things may yet work out.

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