Commentary Law and Policy

I’m a Middle-Class Mom Using CHIP and the Money Is Running Out

Robin Marty

The GOP continues to put the wealthiest 1 percent ahead of the health of families like mine. And I live in Minnesota, which has come close to enacting true health-care reform.

When my husband was unexpectedly laid off from his job after 19 years, our first thought wasn’t when he would find a new position or how we would pay our mortgage to keep the roof over our heads. No, our biggest fear and most immediate concern was how we were going to pay for our family’s health insurance before his company’s coverage expired on the first of the month—seven days later.

The answer to that question—like most that involve multiple levels of government—was both simple and complicated. While we could jump into the exchange before the open enrollment period, we were officially too late to get coverage for the following month, which would leave the entire family uninsured for all of November or relying on a COBRA package whose costs wouldn’t be provided to us for another two weeks. But after a number of phone calls and two hours on hold, we received the good news that the deadline would be waived.

Suddenly, in a matter of days, the two of us and our three children were covered with affordable health insurance plans that were nearly identical to those that we had through my husband’s work and even offered us the same doctors, clinics, co-pays and out-of-pocket deductibles—a definite perk of living in the state that has gone the furthest to embrace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The panic of seeing almost the entirety of my husband’s monthly severance package eaten by thousands of dollars in COBRA costs receded, and he could start looking for a new job that best utilizes his skills without needing to grab the first position offered solely so we didn’t drain our savings with massive monthly premiums.

That panic may be coming back, however, because Minnesota is running out of money. And thanks to Republicans in Congress, my children could become uninsured again.

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Because our progressive state government believes that children should be healthy regardless of their parents’ income level, Minnesota has one of the most extensive Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage criteria in the nation. That means that even with a solidly middle-class household income, our three children are all offered insurance through the state without us paying any premiums, allowing my husband and me to purchase our own plan at a lower cost. Together, this is saving us nearly $1,200 a month in insurance premiums for the rest of this calendar year compared to the insurance offered to us through a COBRA plan—a temporary health insurance policy created to allow employees to continue their coverage plans when they have been laid off from a job that provided insurance. In 2018, that savings will increase to more than $2,000 a month.

The bad news, however, is that the state program is out of money. Minnesota is now projected to fall $188 million into debt over the next 18 months, with most of that debt coming from the decision to subsidize a weakening insurance market for adults and continue its generous coverage of children.

Of course, Minnesota shouldn’t be in this situation at all and wouldn’t be if not for the GOP. It was congressional Republicans who chose not to reauthorize CHIP, a previously popular, uncontroversial bipartisan program signed into law in 1997 and whose reauthorization had never been in question before this year. Instead, the right politicized its funding because it was still finagling an attempt to repeal the ACA, a mission that failed miserably in the Senate. It’s those same congressional Republicans who rammed through a tax bill that redistributes wealth upward while ballooning our national debt. And it’s again those congressional Republicans who are now claiming that with such a dramatic loss of revenue forecasted in those tax cuts for millionaires and corporations, there may no longer be enough money to reauthorize CHIP at all, or at the very least not to the full amount the program has been receiving.

All in all, the Capitol Hill foot dragging and game playing that allowed politicians to kick this bipartisan funding reauthorization down the road indefinitely caused my state to be the first to run a deficit in its children’s insurance fund, one that continues to grow. How significant is the reauthorization to Minnesota? If the federal government does finally provide the missing funds, the estimated state debt would likely drop to just $10 million.

Of course, Minnesota Republicans played their own part to get us here. Earlier this year, they authorized $650 million in tax cuts for seniors, businesses, and farmers. This took the state from a comfortable $1.65 billion surplus into a budget deficit instead.

Still, I’m lucky that I live in a state that—despite the usual partisan bickering—appears more likely to dip into its “rainy day” fund than actually cut kids out of the program. The same isn’t true in states like Colorado or Texas, where parents are already learning that their children’s coverage may be drawing to a close if federal funding doesn’t show up soon. But I know full well that if things get dire and our state does have to reduce its CHIP program, it will be my children who will be the first to be removed since we have other insurance options to explore—regardless of how expensive those other options may be.

If that happens, we’ll obviously find a way to work it out. We would need to pare down expenses to the bone, living solely off my part-time freelance work while using my husband’s severance pay for insurance. After that, we’d dip into the savings we’ve put aside for potentially purchasing a larger house as our children grow. We have a number of resources we can continue to pull from, unlike many families relying on just one income, working multiple jobs, or stretching themselves from paycheck to paycheck to meet their monthly expenses. We will find a way to pay this because we understand that every family is one major illness or accident away from losing everything if they are uninsured, and we recognize how lucky we are that overall we have our health. So many families in Minnesota, and the rest of the country, cannot say the same.

If our luck holds, my husband will have a new job well before his severance ends, and we will be back to having private insurance through his new employer. That means readdressing health-care needs that we are putting on hold for now, like a medically necessary but not urgent eye surgery for my 7-year-old that we just aren’t comfortable paying for until we know for sure that our financial future is secure. Even now, with CHIP supporting us, we still finding ourselves looking at our medical decisions based on when or where we might be employed. Regardless of how solidly middle-class we are, we still weigh our health needs against the cost of our care.

The ACA was supposed to bring an end to employment being the biggest factor in whether a family could afford the medical services they needed. While it was never perfect, it could have made great strides in doing so if the GOP weren’t so determined to bring it down—first by refusing to expand Medicaid in every state and later by creating instability in the insurance marketplace. Minnesota came far closer than the federal government to enacting true health-care reform, and now, piecemeal, federal Republicans are working to destroy that, too. By refusing to reauthorize CHIP, and by admitting clearly that now that so-called tax reform is done and the rich received their handout it will be Medicaid and Medicare absorbing the cuts, the GOP continues to put the wealthiest 1 percent ahead of the health of families like mine. And sadly, I don’t know how much longer my state can continue to hold them off.

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