The Hijacking of Children’s Health

Published July 11, 2007

Like pirates lurking on the high seas looking for victims, politicians probably wear their best buccaneer smirks whenever a new program to help children becomes accepted into law. And much like a wealthy, unsuspecting merchant ship, children’s programs are in constant danger of being pillaged.

Congress is considering reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) this year. SCHIP was created in 1997 to insure children from poor families who do not qualify for Medicaid coverage. The program must be reauthorized this year or face elimination, and advocates already are calling for increasing funding beyond the $40 billion already allocated.

SCHIP is a popular extension of Medicaid because it addresses a politically bullet-proof issue: poor children. Under the guise of helping children, states have increasingly hijacked the program for their own aims.

Though enacted as a program exclusively for the young, legislators in many states have used SCHIP funding to push toward universal coverage. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates 10 percent of those covered by SCHIP funding are actually adults. In 2005, Minnesota’s SCHIP program insured almost seven adults for every child covered; 56 percent of Arizona enrollees were adults.

SCHIP was originally designed to help poor children, but in New Jersey, funding is available to a family that makes more than $72,000 a year. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the median income for a two-person family in New Jersey is $61,375. New Jersey isn’t unique; GAO found that seven states covered children’s health insurance up to 300 percent of the poverty rate. Fourteen states provide insurance to families with incomes above 200 percent poverty ($41,000 for a family of four).

This expansive coverage has endangered funding for the program. In 2002, states began to spend more money than was available from the national government. SCHIP has grown a frightening 10 percent each year since 2002, and 18 states faced a budget shortfall by 2006. Congress allocated $283 million in 2006 to help cover these shortfalls.

The chief hurdle to reauthorizing SCHIP is funding. Unsurprisingly, several states which hijacked their children’s health insurance programs are now in serious danger of bankruptcy. Many will look at New Jersey’s pending bankruptcy and claim SCHIP is underfunded. The reality is this low-income children’s health care program was irresponsibly expanded to cover adults and the middle-class.

SCHIP funding is terribly misdirected, and those that call for increased funding are misguided. Voters who supported SCHIP thought they were helping poor children, not adults and middle-class families. Children’s advocates should not be asking for more dollars for the program. Instead, they should demand that this government program stick to its original purpose and actually help impoverished children.

Hijacking children’s health insurance hurts poor children, deceives voters, and robs taxpayers. We need to stop this nefarious pirate behavior and refocus on the children.

Dane G. Wendell ([email protected]) is a legislative specialist for The Heartland Institute. He is author of the “State Welfare Report Card,” a forthcoming policy report that describes welfare reform successes and failures in the 50 states.