The 20,000 chocolate chips were piled inside a foot-high plastic container, with a message for Utah’s senior senator scrawled on the outside in permanent marker: “One chocolate chip for every child waiting for Senator Hatch to do the right thing.”
Each chip, explained Katie Matheson, with the group Alliance for a Better Utah, represented one Utah child covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program — known as CHIP. The sugary delivery was meant, she said, “to sweeten the deal” as supporters lobby Sen. Orrin Hatch and others to vote for its survival.
The federal and state program helps subsidize wellness exams, immunizations, doctors visits, prescriptions and other forms of health care for nearly 20,000 Utah children — and about 9 million around the country. They typically come from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, the federally-backed health insurance program covering low-income Americans.
But federal funds for CHIP ran out Sept. 30, and the program is now in limbo. Congress has so far been unable to agree on a plan to renew that funding, despite bipartisan support when it was created in 2007. Hatch, a seven-term Republican, helped write the original legislation.
Utah officials say the state has enough money to cover CHIP families through the end of January. Beneficiaries would then be forced to find coverage on the federal Affordable Care Act health-insurance exchange, according to a message recently posted on the Utah Department of Health’s website.
“All it takes is one incident for a healthy child to need to go to the emergency room,” Matheson said Monday, standing outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal building in Salt Lake City. “It’s terrifying to be staring at less than two months, knowing your child may not be covered.”
Minutes earlier, Matheson and others with the progressive-leaning advocacy group had delivered the chips and a petition to Hatch’s office. His staff accepted the petition, which had been signed by about 600 people and urged the senator to prioritize support for CHIP funding. Hatch staffers, Matheson said, were attentive and promised to deliver the message to the Washington, D.C. office.
But the office workers weren’t allowed to take the food gifts. “So we now have a lot of chocolate chips to make chocolate chip cookies with,” she said.
Hatch is now reportedly working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to pass a five-year extension of the CHIP program.
During an online town hall last week, Hatch said that “while I would’ve liked to pass the CHIP bill months ago, I believe our bill will pass by the end of the year and be signed into law with enough time to ensure funding goes uninterrupted and nobody loses coverage.”
The senior GOP lawmaker has cast the bipartisan effort to extend health coverage for vulnerable children as a “moral responsibility.” On Sept. 12, the Senate Finance Committee, of which Hatch is chairman, announced the agreement to continue funding the plan, though the new bill, Keeping Kids’ Insurance Dependable and Secure Act, has yet to go to a vote.
If the bill is not passed by the end of the year, the Utah Department of Health is prepared to send letters to CHIP families warning them coverage may soon end, department spokesman Tom Hudachko said. Other states have already taken similar steps, predicting they, too, will soon run out of money.
In an emailed statement, Hatch lamented the “dysfunction” in Congress, which he said is the “worst in recent memory,” for delays in CHIP funding being renewed. But he expressed confidence the funding extension would pass with bipartisan support in the Senate — ”with enough time to ensure the program has no gaps in coverage.”
— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.