Matt Driscoll

Real kids needed this insurance program, including mine. Congress should fund it

TNT columnist Matt Driscoll’s son, August, benefited from the federal Child Health Insurance Program.
TNT columnist Matt Driscoll’s son, August, benefited from the federal Child Health Insurance Program.

It’s time to start talking about CHIP, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

In fact, it’s way past time.

That’s because, back in late September, the funding for the $14 billion-a-year federal program ran out. So far, Congress has yet to agree on a plan on how to pay for the program moving forward, putting the health insurance of nearly 9 million kids across the country in peril.

In Washington state, CHIP helps to cover nearly 70,000 children annually. Without Congressional action, Gov. Jay Inslee has said our state won’t be able to continue doing so past February 2018.

That means there are a lot of terrified families out there right now.

I know this fact well, because my kids — and my family — relied on CHIP in the past.

More accurately, we were saved by it.

My wife and I have three children, two inspiring and healthy daughters, and a son — August — who was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating neurological condition not long before his second birthday.

August is equally inspiring, make no mistake. He’ll turn 7 in February. But his life also has been a constant challenge. At school, he largely uses a wheelchair. After school, his days are full of medical appointments and therapies.

August has been hospitalized more times than I can remember, three times in just the past year. He regularly takes no fewer than five prescriptions. He eats most of his meals through a tube that was surgically placed in his abdomen, allowing us to push liquefied food straight into his stomach.

He’s a complicated little dude, in other words. And his life has literally depended on the medical care he’s received.

For a time, that medical care was possible thanks to CHIP.

I shudder to think where he would be, or where our family might be, if CHIP wasn’t available when we needed it.

The program, which was created back in 1997, in part by current Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, has historically been embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s specifically designed to help cover children whose parents earn too much for Medicaid but not enough to afford other health insurance. It’s a program that serves an identified set of potentially vulnerable kids, providing things like well-child checkups, immunizations, prescriptions, emergency services and dental and vision care for a low monthly premium.

I simply don’t know how we would have managed without CHIP, even if we were able to get August covered by one of the high-cost, high-copay, high-deductible plans that would have been our only alternative.

When we ended up in the hospital, attended to by a team of solemn-looking doctors, would we also have been forced to worry about how we were going to pay for the stay and all the tests?

When the prescriptions became so frequent that the pharmacist knew August’s date of birth by heart, would we have been stuck in a position where we couldn’t pay for food, rent or clothes for our daughters because of the costs of meds?

Would the physical therapy appointments August has attended weekly for more than five years — sessions that help stave off the physical degeneration that’s part of his condition — have started to feel like luxuries we didn’t have the financial means to afford?

Would our family have gone bankrupt? Or, would my wife or I had to give up one of our careers in a desperate attempt to reduce our income enough to qualify for Medicaid?

These are questions no family should have to contemplate. Yet, with the future of CHIP in doubt, it’s precisely the situation thousands of families in Washington, and millions across the country, are currently bracing for.

That’s cruel, but perhaps not unusual in our new political reality.

And that’s a sad indictment of where things stand in this country. So the rancor goes in the nation’s capital. Issues that once received bipartisan support — like helping to provide health insurance for children who need it — have become political leverage or items of hot contention.

I’m not the type of columnist that likes to regularly trot out his kids as column fodder. It can be a cheap ploy, and one I fear readers would quickly tire of.

Still, in this instance, I’m breaking my own rule. And not because my kids are exceptional in the fact that they’ve benefited from CHIP.

Rather, my kids — and, specifically, August — are unexceptional in this instance. They’re exactly like the millions of other children in this country whom CHIP has helped over the past 20 years.

That perspective is important, and it’s one that I hope lawmakers in Washington, D.C., keep in mind as the clock on CHIP counts down.

Because when we talk about policy implications and start holding programs hostage for political gain, or start evaluating them solely by statistics and dollar figures, it’s essential that we also take the time consider what really matters:

The children and families that stand in the balance.