Merkley: Politics should stand aside when children’s health at risk

This year has been one of stark partisanship, with rhetoric from both sides of the aisle seeking to stress differences between Democrats and Republicans.

But one thing I thought we all could agree on is that we need to do everything we can to look out for our children. I see our responsibility and mission as legislators — and the core purpose of our Constitution — as ensuring children have safe spaces, full bellies, and good health.

That’s why I am outraged that the majority in Congress has refused to act to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, commonly referred to as CHIP.

For 20 years the program, with strong bipartisan support, has ensured that no children fall through the cracks of our health care system. It provides states with funding to cover health care expenses for children whose families have incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford expensive private coverage.

Oregon’s CHIP program, called Oregon Healthy Kids, last year helped more than 140,000 Oregon children access health care. Thanks to CHIP, 779 children from Wasco County— that’s 13 percent of children in the county — this year have been able to access check-ups, immunizations, dental care, doctors’ visits, and other important health care services.

Funding for CHIP expired on September 30, 2017, because Congress failed to extend funding for the program.

Every single state in America — 50 out of 50 states — has a CHIP program. Oregon, along with five other states, will run out of CHIP money this month. Another 25 states will run out of CHIP money in the first three months of 2018.

It is completely unacceptable that the Congressional majority allowed CHIP to expire — and it’s even more outrageous that they’ve waited 87 days and counting to reauthorize it.

Right now there is a bipartisan bill ready and waiting to be brought to the Senate floor. It would extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program through 2022. It was passed by the Finance Committee with unanimous support. The Senate could take up that bill right now and pass it. So what’s the holdup? Why is health care for our children being disrupted?

The answer makes my blood boil: It is a pawn in cynical political machinations. The majority leadership in Congress is using the health and well-being of hundreds of children in Wasco County and nine million children across the country as a bargaining chip. Instead of taking up this bipartisan bill, they’re holding it hostage to try to win concessions in budget negotiations. The most the majority is willing to give our children is a paltry three-month extension of the program that was included in a continuing appropriations bill. Three months is unacceptable; we need to create stability and reliability for our children by reauthorizing this program for years to come.

The holidays are upon us, and no parents should have to worry at this time of year that an illness or injury could endanger their child’s life or family’s finances. I am urging my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle to urgently prioritize issues that are essential to working folks — like ensuring the children who rely on CHIP can keep getting the care they need.

There is no reason I can see that we shouldn’t be able to agree that protecting health care for nine million children across the country is an absolute top priority. That is our responsibility. That should be our mission. We must get it done. Nine million American children are waiting.