On Tuesday, health care activists and Democrats celebrated the defeat of Graham-Cassidy, the GOP’s third attempt to repeal Obamacare since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Thanks to reams of bad press and highly visible protests in the Capitol led by groups like ADAPT, Maine’s Susan Collins on Monday became the third Republican senator to oppose the bill, effectively making it dead on arrival. The following day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to shelve the bill without putting it to a vote.
But the last-ditch repeal effort, meant to be passed by a September 30 deadline, may have another cost: the health insurance of nearly nine million children. What’s more frustrating still is that there is no reason for it to have gotten to this point, the latest evidence that the GOP has become incapable of governing responsibly.
Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy unveiled their health care repeal bill five days before Senators Orrin Hatch and Ron Wyden introduced their bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which would extend the program for five more years. CHIP is set to expire on September 30.
Should CHIP expire, most states have enough funding to maintain the program for a few months. But ten states would run out of funding by the end of the year and Minnesota would run out by the end of October. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “When their federal funding runs out, states with separate CHIP programs (rather than CHIP-funded Medicaid expansions for children) may be forced to impose enrollment caps or freezes, or shut their programs entirely.”
Furthermore, there would be numerous adverse consequences that would begin immediately. States would have to start shifting costs to cover administrative tasks necessary for ending the program, such as sending parents notices in the mail. And the lack of assurance that the program will exist in the future makes it impossible for states to budget and plan. Basically, states would have to focus on a variety of things completely unrelated to the program’s intent of expanding access to and improving children’s health care.
CHIP is one of the few programs left in Congress that is considered truly bipartisan. It was originally co-sponsored by Hatch, a Republican, and the late Ted Kennedy. There have been policy disagreements between the two sides, such as in 2015, over whether to preserve a 23 percent bump in federal matching rates installed under the Affordable Care Act. And in 2007, Congress failed to reauthorize the program because George W. Bush vetoed the bill twice, until an extension was finally passed at the end of the year.
But most Democrats and Republicans agree that the program is a successful one. A huge majority of Americans—75 percent—polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that they thought it was “extremely” or “very” important to reauthorize CHIP before its funding ran out. Only 47 percent said the same about repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Which is why it’s especially egregious that the Republican-controlled Congress has been unable to reauthorize CHIP in time. Instead, the GOP has been obsessed with numerous Obamacare repeal efforts, punting necessary legislation like CHIP down the line. In March, state Medicaid directors were already warning about the harmful effects of congressional inaction, writing in a letter to senators that “as the program nears the end of its congressional funding, states will be required to notify current CHIP beneficiaries of the termination of their coverage. This process may be required to begin as early as July in some states.”
In May, a Finance Committee hearing on CHIP was canceled at the request of Democrats who feared that Republicans would use the program as leverage for their ongoing Obamacare repeal effort. But the responsibility for failing to authorize the program falls squarely on the GOP, after Graham-Cassidy drowned out any discussion of the legislation.
As Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group, told the New Republic, “There was growing attention and movement towards getting this done and then Graham-Cassidy came up and everyone stopped talking to us about it. It was hard to get meetings after that, to talk to people about [the Hatch-Wyden bill]. People were like, ‘No we’re 24/7 on Graham-Cassidy.’”
As time goes on, reauthorizing CHIP should be a relatively painless process, especially as the program becomes more entrenched. Even though the two parties battled over numerous policy details in 2015, Congress reauthorized the program in April of that year, five months before it was set to expire. The GOP’s lack of action in ensuring seamless funding for the program reveals the party’s deep incompetence when it comes to governing. None of this is due to “bipartisan gridlock”—it is solely the failure of the Republican Party, which has left all other legislative priorities by the wayside in its cruel and hapless attempts to repeal Obamacare.
Most damningly, this program should be an easy political win for the GOP, which has a glaring lack of legislative accomplishments under its belt. “It just dumbfounds me that they’re not doing this,” Lesley says. “It’s a no-brainer.” CHIP is a good way to measure the health of our government, revealing that it struggles to pass uncontroversial legislation on time that exists to help children, possibly the last group of citizens who can muster universal sympathy and support. And there is only one party to blame.