Former state Sen. Kukovich urges voters to save CHIP |

Former state Sen. Kukovich urges voters to save CHIP

Deb Erdley
Kim Stepinsky | For the Tribune-Review
Allen Kukovich
Kim Stepinsky | For the Tribune-Review
Allen Kukovich

A former Westmoreland County lawmaker who sponsored the state law that became the model for the national Children’s Health Insurance Program is going on the offensive online to save the program.

Former state Sen. Allen Kukovich of Penn Township, who served in the General Assembly from 1977 to 2004, was the prime sponsor of a 1992 Pennsylvania law that became the model for the national CHIP program five years later. He recently posted an appeal on YouTube, urging voters to call the Capitol switchboard and ask their representatives to support reauthorization of the federal program that now provides free or low-cost health insurance to more than 9 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase private insurance.

The program that insures 180,000 Pennsylvania children, including 4,797 in Westmoreland County and 13,937 in Allegheny County, has faced the prospect of running out of cash since Congress failed to reauthorize funding for it by Sept. 30.

CHIP has attracted bipartisan support in the past, but it fell to the back burner this year as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., wrangled over the Affordable Care Act and a rewrite of the tax code.

Kukovich said he began working with “Allies for Children” to rally support for CHIP earlier this year when it appeared Congress was poised to repeal CHIP along with the Affordable Care Act.

The former state senator is a regular speaker on health care issues on college campuses across the country. He said he is frustrated that Congress failed to reauthorize long-term funding for the program.

“The votes have been there. There’s been bipartisan support for reauthorization. There is nobody coming out against it, but the leadership hasn’t been interested in doing much,” he said.

Kukovich said it took nearly three years to gather enough votes to pass CHIP in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania law funded CHIP through a 2 cents per pack tax on cigarettes.

Initially, there were skeptics, but as the results of the Pennsylvania program came in, officials in Washington, D.C., began looking at it seriously and adopted the Pennsylvania model 20 years ago.

Today, the federal government covers about 90 percent of the cost of CHIP, while states pick up about 10 percent of the tab.

Earlier this month, it appeared that Pennsylvania, where CHIP cost $430.7 million last year, would run out of money for it in January. Last week, Congress passed a stopgap bill designed to keep CHIP afloat through the first quarter of 2018.

“It certainly appears it will, but we don’t even know what we’re getting yet. We have to talk with CMS and run the numbers through our budget office,” said Colin Day, deputy director of communications for Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Gov. Tom Wolf called Congress’ failure to reauthorize CHIP “appalling” and said stopgap measures are not the answer.

The federal stopgap measure that provided $2.85 billion for CHIP also directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to redistribute any leftover CHIP funds to states facing the most serious shortfalls in funding for CHIP. According to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, Pennsylvania was among 20 states in that category.

Joan Benso, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said CHIP has contributed to lowering the number of children without health insurance. More than 1.4 million or 46 percent of Pennsylvania children are insured through CHIP and Medicaid, Benso said.

“We’ve reached an all-time low for the number of uninsured children in Pennsylvania,” Benso said at an event earlier his month, urging Congress to reauthorize CHIP.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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