By John Ingold and Mark K Matthews
Colorado lawmakers on Thursday approved emergency funds to keep alive a health insurance program for children and pregnant women, amid concerns that a short-term extension of the program's funding OK'd by Congress won't arrive soon enough to help.
In a unanimous vote, members of the Joint Budget Committee approved spending $9.6 million of state funds to run the Children's Health Plan Plus program for an extra month, if necessary. The vote means ominous end-of-coverage letters that Colorado had planned to send next week to more than 75,000 kids and pregnant women covered by the program won't go out.
But the cash infusion doesn't secure the long-term future of the program, which normally is paid for mostly with federal money that Congress has yet to reauthorize for more than a few months at a time.
"I have my fingers crossed that Congress will do the right thing," state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Dillon and the chair of the state's budget committee, said just before Thursday's vote.
Children's Health Plan Plus, or CHP+, is the state's version of the national Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers more than 9 million kids across the country. The program provides health coverage for children and pregnant women from low-income families that earn just enough not to qualify for Medicaid.
Congress allowed funding for the program to expire several months ago, and Colorado's program has been running on leftover money since then. The state had expected to run out of money for CHP+ at the end of January.
On Tuesday, Gov. John Hickenlooper asked lawmakers to dip into a state fund to keep CHP+ alive through February. That would give Congress time to reauthorize the program funding or give Colorado time to figure out what to do next, he said.
"We just hope we're not in the same situation in another month," Hamner said Thursday.
The situation is somewhat less dire after the Republican-controlled Congress on Thursday passed a last-minute measure to fund the government through Jan. 19.
Included in the bill was a provision that would pay for the Children's Health Insurance Program through March 31, with three months of retroactive funding to cover costs incurred since the program lapsed this fall.
"I support the inclusion of language in the must-pass CR that allows CHIP funding to continue while a long-term bipartisan agreement is worked out," U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he voted against the stopgap funding bill in part because it doesn't provide a long-term fix for the Children's Health Insurance Program.
"We should not accept this approach," Bennet said in a statement. "We should stay here and finish our work, rather than abdicating our responsibility and leaving so many Coloradan families in the lurch."
Tom Massey, the interim executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, said state officials are uncertain whether the new federal money will arrive in time to keep CHP+ from running out of cash. He said his department would spend the newly approved state money only if it's needed.
The state money will come from the CHP+ trust fund, which has $23.7 million in it. Money from the tobacco master settlement flows into the trust fund every year. But those dollars aren't enough to pay for the whole program, which would cost the state more than $100 million a year if it wanted to fund CHP+ on its own, Massey said.
"We don't think it's ever going to come to that," Massey said optimistically.
But, he said, Congress normally reauthorizes funding quickly for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which was created in 1997.
"We've never seen it get this far," he said.
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