Health coverage for more than 100,000 children from low-income families in Illinois could be in jeopardy if Congress doesn't act soon to renew a program that health advocates say is being overshadowed by debate over Obamacare.
In Illinois, about 131,000 kids receive health care coverage through the Children's Health Insurance Program, a state- and federally funded program for children whose families make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to pay for private insurance. The program is set to expire Saturday.
There's broad bipartisan support in Congress for reauthorizing the program, and Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have introduced a bill to do just that.
But the impending expiration is making children's health care advocates nervous, especially as congressional Republicans focus on trying to pass another bill to repeal and replace Obamacare — officially known as the Affordable Care Act — before the end of this month.
Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer for Advocate Children's Hospital, said he's worried lawmakers might try to use reauthorization of the children's program as leverage for passing the latest Obamacare repeal and replace bill, known as the Graham-Cassidy bill.
"I know there's debate still over the Affordable Care Act, but let's not cut health care for kids," Belmonte said.
In Illinois, about 88 percent of the funding for the children's program comes from the federal government — about $218 million in fiscal year 2017, according to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
If Congress fails to renew that program, many states have said they will run out of federal funding by early next year, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Illinois did not supply information about when it might run out of funds for that survey, and a spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services was not immediately able to say Monday when Illinois would run out of federal funds.
But some advocates say the state might run out of funding for the program as early as March if it's not renewed.
If the program ends, those kids might end up uninsured, which could mean they get less preventative care, fewer vaccinations and only see doctors in emergencies, advocates say.
"So many of those children will end up in our emergency rooms and not get the preventative care they need," said Mike Farrell, president of Advocate Children's Hospital. Hospitals would likely have to eat the costs of treating those children, potentially putting their own plans for expansions of services in question, he said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at a news conference Monday that a renewal of the children's health program is "being held hostage in this conversation about repealing Obamacare."
Hatch is in discussions with members of the Senate Finance Committee about how to proceed when it comes to the Children's Health Insurance Program.
"I will continue to work with my colleagues on the Finance Committee to advance CHIP and other critical health care provisions within the committee's jurisdiction in a fiscally responsible manner and as quickly as possible," Hatch said in a statement Monday.
Durbin said the children's health program isn't the only program seemingly on hold while Republicans push a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Federal funding for community health centers is also set to expire Saturday. Federally funded community health centers serve mostly low-income people in areas where it might otherwise be difficult to access basic services.
Like the children's health program, funding for community health centers has enjoyed bipartisan support, and a bill has already been introduced to extend funding. But so far, it has not yet been reauthorized.
If Congress doesn't reauthorize that funding, community health centers across the country could lose about 70 percent of their federal grant funding, according to researchers at George Washington University.
Access Community Health Network, which has 36 health centers in Cook and DuPage counties, would lose about $10 million a year if the program isn't reauthorized, said Donna Thompson, Access CEO. If it loses that funding, she estimates the centers will have to serve about 23,000 fewer patients. Now, Access sees more than 180,000 patients a year.
"We would have to close sites and pull back on the number of people we serve," Thompson said.