Virginia legislatures racing against time to fund children’s health program

By Gus Cross

Virginia’s Sixth Congressional district, encompassing the west-central area of Virginia including Rockbridge, Lexington, and Buena Vista, currently has 6,460 children on the verge of losing their Medicaid health benefits.

Family Access to Medical Insurance Security (FAMIS), Virginia’s name for the national Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), is on the verge of shutting down. CHIP is a federally funded Medicaid program that started in 1997 and has since has received large bi-partisan support. This year however, the United States Congress has neglected to reauthorize funding for CHIP, missing the deadline to do so two months ago, in September.

Now states like Virginia are using left-over funds to keep the program alive until the U.S. Congress, if it decides to do so, reauthorizes funding for the program.

“We are trying to be cognizant of the fact that Congress could still act and they could even act after we close down the program and we would need to re-open it as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Linda Nablo, the Chief Deputy Director of the DMAS.

Currently, the state of Virginia has enough funds to keep FAMIS operational until January 31. Originally, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services was going to mail letters on December 1 to families covered by FAMIS saying that their benefits might end due to a lack of funding for the program. Out of hope that Congress still might authorize funding for CHIP, the department has held off on doing that.

FAMIS stands for Family Access to Medical Insurance Security. This photo is of a FAMIS poster hanging at the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services in Lexington, Va. (Photo by Gus Cross)

“We are trying to be cognizant of the fact that Congress could still act and they could even act after we close down the program and we would need to re-open it as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Linda Nablo, the Chief Deputy Director of the DMAS. “So we are trying to things in such a way that would make that possible.”

She added that if Congress does not provide the funding by Friday, December 8, DMAS will go ahead and send out letters to the appropriate families.

Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, said he is not hopeful about Congress authorizing the funding because “they are not making the issue a priority.” First Focus is a bi-partisan advocacy group that works to make sure federal policy-making prioritizes children and families. He said a few months ago he had greater hope about the funding for CHIP, but since Congress has been unsuccessful in addressing the issue even two months later he isn’t so sure.

“They have shown no ability that they can do this. I no longer believe it,” Lesley said.

If Congress does not extend CHIP, Nablo believes that it could be possible that the Virginia General Assembly would take some action in next year’s session to create a new program to help some of the people who are currently covered by FAMIS.

“There would be interest. State legislators are very concerned about what is currently happening,” said Nablo. “But they haven’t been given the opportunity to plan. Had the General Assembly known about this a year ago they would have had time to craft a program to help in some cases.”

Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds, who represents the 25th State Senate District, said that this would be difficult because it would require a large amount of money. Currently, Virginia is only responsible for 12 percent of the $323 million that funds FAMIS while the federal government supplies the remaining funding. Despite the difficulty in finding funds for a state project similar to FAMIS, Deeds did not completely rule out the possibility.

“It is very difficult to say whether we will or will not. Enough people are concerned about this, that should Congress fail to act, we are going to address the issue,” said Deeds.

The Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services is unsure of how many Rockbridge area residents will be affected if CHIP funding is not reauthorized, but the number could be in the hundreds.