VALLEY — Soon, more than a thousand children in the San Luis Valley could be without health insurance. Child Health Plan Plus, Colorado’s version of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, recently received emergency state funding to operate through February 28, and CHIP will be funded federally through the end of March via Congress’ short-term spending bill passed in December. However, the future of the program remains unknown.
“We appreciate today’s bipartisan action by the [Joint Budget Committee] as it gives CHP+ families peace of mind through the holidays,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper in a Dec. 21 press release. “Still, this funding is only temporary. Congress needs to stop playing politics and renew funding for the program.”
Funding for the CHP+ extension comes from the Children’s Basic Health Plan Trust, which was created using monies from the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement. Prior to the JBC budget action, Colorado only had sufficient funding to operate the CHP+ program through Jan. 31 when federal dollars ran out in September.
The program, created in 1997, acts as a safety net for those with an income level too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford private insurance. There are approximately 75,000 children and 800 pregnant women on CHP+ throughout the state.
Knowing how much the program means to Colorado, Rep. Scott Tipton voted to extended federal CHIP funding through 2022 while Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet have co-sponsored a similar bill for the same five years. Neither bill has yet to become law.
Locally, the entire San Luis Valley had 925 CHP+ cases in November, according to the most recent data provided by the Department of Human Services. At an average two kids per family that equals 1,850 children in the region who are at risk to lose coverage.
“These families are now scrambling to try to get into the marketplace or trying to tag into their health coverage with their employer,” Alamosa County Department of Human Services Director Catherine Salazar said. “For a lot of families the employer coverage is way too expensive as well...This was really the working family’s mechanism to be able to afford health insurance for their kids.”
Alamosa County has the most CHP+ cases in the Valley with 318. That’s an increase of 77 cases from last July’s count of 241. Conejos County had 189 in November while 40 cases were reported in Costilla County. For Rio Grande County there were 255, which is up 69 cases from November of 2016. Saguache County had 123 and Mineral County’s cases were not reported for privacy concerns due to having less than 30 clients.
“If this is reauthorized,” Salazar said, “my sense is that those numbers will continue to climb.
“Unfortunately if a program like this goes away, that doesn’t mean the kids stop being sick. They’ll utilize the emergency room for indigent care, which is going to drive costs up to the hospital because they can’t get the reimbursement. You’re talking about a vulnerable population with babies and kids. We’re not talking about adults.”
San Luis Valley Health, the only hospital with labor and delivery services in the Valley, saw 447 patients on CHP+ in 2017. Like regular health insurance it covers a wide spectrum of treatment such as vaccinations, tonsillectomies, putting tubes in infected ears and regular checkups in addition to dental benefits.
“Just the coverage itself gives the access to maintain wellness to kids,” said SLV Health Patient Access Manager Samantha Lopez, “so you don’t have a parent who can’t afford to take them to the doctor for a wellness visit and later on discover something more costly that could have been prevented had they been seen.”
Lopez, who was once on CHP+ with her first child, knows firsthand how vital the program is.
“I was covered through the CHIP program as a pregnant woman and it made things so much less stressful, just knowing that I had that coverage,” Lopez said. “It took care of all of my prenatal needs and once my son was born then it was just a seamless transition into that program.”
Though it doesn’t replace health insurance, Lopez said that the hospital participates in the Colorado Indigent Care Program and has various financial assistance options available.
The state is encouraging families to reapply for CHP+ to make sure there is no gap in coverage if Congress funds the insurance. However, individuals will not be reimbursed the $25 to $105 application fee if the program is discontinued.
“It would be really devastating to those kids if CHIP just dropped off the face of the map,” said Lopez.
CHP+ clients can monitor updates to the program here.