David Sarasohn: For Oregon kids’ health care, it’s a sinister September

Congress, coming back to work Tuesday after a four-week recess, is about to discover something long known to high-school students and air conditioner repairmen:

When you take off all of August, September just looks worse.

The rest of the country, and especially Oregon, is about to learn it as well.

August, marked by calamities in Charlottesville and Houston, hasn’t been a recess from anything. Republican senators and representatives who held town hall meetings last month – a notably limited number – often received a vacation message of wish-you-weren’t-here.

Returning at last to the books, Congress faces a daunting pile of assignments. By Sept. 30, it needs to pass some kind of budget to keep the United States government from shutting down. Congress has actually shut the government down several times before, with results so calamitous that several members are eager to do it again.

Congress also needs to raise the debt limit to keep U.S. Treasury checks from bouncing, an experiment that’s never been tried, but seems unlikely to work out well. Still, various members seem ready to try it, and take the U.S. financial system hostage.

(Nice dollar you got here. Shame if anything happened to it…)

President Trump also wants Congress to immediately take up tax reform, although it’s not clear what he actually wants, and redrawing the entire tax system is not something you do in a tweet.

Congress also needs to spend much of September throwing a literal, and very expensive, lifeline to a drowning Houston – although the House Budget Committee’s plan calls for sharply cutting emergency aid and environmental recovery programs. 

Between now and Sept. 30, Congress has scheduled a total of just 12 legislative days, making it all a considerable assignment, especially for a body that has taken seven months to accomplish very little.

In the midst of everything it has to do in September, Congress might lose track of some smaller things. You know, items dealing with smaller people.

This September, Congress must reauthorize the 20-year-old Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 8.9 million kids. Oregon has taken particular advantage of the mostly federally funded program, using it to cover 100,000 of the state’s children. Between CHIP and the Affordable Care Act, Oregon has managed health coverage for 98 percent of its children.

That is, as of August.

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on CHIP for Thursday, and its leaders, committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, strongly support the program. 

But Republican leaders in both houses have talked about using CHIP reauthorization to push through some of the cuts in health care they failed to pass in July. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported the idea was gaining momentum.

(Cuts to the Affordable Care Act, which has added 440,000 people to the Oregon Health Plan, could also hit Oregon’s kids.)

Along with reauthorizing CHIP, Congress also needs to fund it as part of a budget. The proposed Trump budget cuts CHIP by 20 percent, and reauthorizes it for only two years, although some previous reauthorizations have been for five.

Without reauthorization or funding, “States would have to depend on unspent funds to continue,” says Robb Cowie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority. “We would be looking at a pretty short flight path before it started to defund us.”

Still, there are reports that some House Republicans argue that Congress doesn’t really have to deal with CHIP until later this year, when the states’ money actually starts to run out.

Just about everybody, one way or another, says nice things about health care for kids. But this September in Congress could be the kind of headlong desperate rush where small things, and small people, somehow get trampled.

David Sarasohn’s column appears on the first and third Sundays of the month. He blogs at davidsarasohn.com.

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