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Border Democrats divided over CHIP funding bill passed by House

November 4, 2017 GMT

The House voted Friday to reauthorize funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance to nearly 9 million children nationwide.

Congress members voted along party lines when considering House Resolution 3922, also known as the Champion Act. However, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, along with 15 other Democratic lawmakers broke party lines in voting in favor of the bill, whereas only three Republicans voted against it.

Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, voted against the resolution.

The legislation extends CHIP funding for five years, in addition to funding community health centers for two years. Federal funding for CHIP and the health centers has been in limbo since Oct. 1, after lawmakers missed the deadline for renewing the programs.

For two decades, CHIP has provided routine checkups, immunizations, prescriptions and emergency hospital care to low- to moderate-income children.

Sixty percent of children in Hidalgo County and 65 percent of children in Starr County are covered by Medicaid/CHIP, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. This compares to the state’s average of 45 percent.

Community health centers provide comprehensive services to medically underserved populations regardless of ability to pay, and serve more than 27 million people annually, according to the National Association for Community Health Centers.

“Increasing access to affordable health care is a top priority for me,” Cuellar said in a statement following the vote. “In my district alone, 54 percent of (community health center) patients were uninsured in 2016, which means that these health centers are vitally important for the hardworking Texans who can’t afford coverage.”

Cuellar’s district encompasses Starr County and the western part of Hidalgo County.

Hidalgo County has 12 community health centers and Starr has three such clinics.

In explaining his opposition to the resolution, Gonzalez said he took issue with the bill’s cuts to the Preventative and Public Health Fund in order to fund CHIP.

Created by the Affordable Care Act, the PPHF supports efforts to combat infectious disease and chronic illnesses, in addition to public health efforts like reducing tobacco use and fighting the opioid epidemic.

Gonzalez said he is in favor of reauthorizing CHIP, but cannot support the House’s legislation because it would cut $6.35 billion from the PPHF over the next decade in addition to increasing Medicare premiums for seniors.

“It is inconceivable that we have been forced to decide between insuring our children, and preventing them from getting sick in the first place,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “... I have elected to reject the proposition that preventative care is not important, that we should simply focus on the treatment of disease, because that is not in the best interest of the 15th District of Texas.”

Cuellar said the PPHF cuts were unfortunate, but said, “While I disagree with the prevention fund reductions, community health centers are too critical to our community to jeopardize in the name of partisan politics.”

The bill now moves on to the Senate for consideration, which is not expected to pass the House’s legislation. Rather, the Senate has its own version of a bill that continues funding the PPHF, but doesn’t fund community health centers.

If the House and Senate are unable to agree on a plan to authorize CHIP spending, states will run out of CHIP funds by summer 2018, if not earlier. Texas Health and Human Services estimates Texas has enough CHIP money to last through February 2018.

msmith@themonitor.com