Poliquin says $5B cut to kids' health program is unspent money

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Just a few months after approving a six-year extension of the Child Health Insurance Program that serves about 23,000 Maine minors, Congress may strip $7 billion from funds it already approved for the program.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, is among the co-sponsors of a measure that would rescind the funding as part of a $15 billion plan that supporters said would reduce federal spending.

In a recent statement on the issue, Poliquin said the money he seeks to strip away would be wasted. He also said it can’t be spent, anyhow.

The two-term lawmaker said cutting the appropriation would have no impact on federal outlays or on enrollment in the two-decade-old program that provides health insurance for children from families with incomes a little too high to qualify for Medicaid.

Critics said it wouldn’t actually save much money — the move would amount mostly to an accounting shuffle — and would send a disturbing message about the nation’s priorities.

Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, said the president’s proposal “undermines the bipartisan (Children’s Health Insurance Program) agreement and removes reassurances states need that funding will be available to keep kids covered” simply “to score political points” with the Republican base.

The measure pushed by President Donald Trump would cancel $15 billion in unspent government appropriations, including approvals for a $4.3 billion vehicle technology initiative, $107 million in Hurricane Sandy relief, railroad benefits and money allocated for the 2015 Ebola outbreak that never got spent. Congress has 45 days to agree or the rescission bid falls short.

The CHIP funding rescission is the item that has raised the most ire. It calls for canceling $5.1 billion in approved funding that wasn’t used and another $1.9 billion that serves as a sort of rainy-day fund in case states experience unexpectedly high needs.

“Only a handful of states have had to tap the contingency fund before — Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee — but rescinding $2 billion from the fund undermines the very assurance it was created to provide,” said Alker, with the Center for Children and Families.

Her center estimates 14,427 children are enrolled in the program in Poliquin’s sprawling northern Maine district. Another 8,830 live in the 1st District in southern and coastal Maine.

Brendan Conley, Poliquin’s press aide, said Tuesday that concerns are overblown. He said that even after the proposed cuts, “there would still be $500 million in the contingency fund” — an account that has seen only $310 million in claims made against it in the past decade.

Poliquin defended his position as a necessary check on a soaring deficit.

“Washington’s spending is out of control and, as an original co-sponsor and strong supporter of a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution, I’ve long called for changes to our processes in Congress to make sure we can get our spending under control regardless of which party is in power or political pressures,” he said.

“Only in Washington, D.C., would you find criticism that $15 billion is not a lot of money to save for our taxpayers, especially considering these dollars are unspent or expired, would have no impact on any beneficiary of CHIP, and would otherwise be wasted,” Poliquin said.

Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall said in a letter last week that the CHIP cuts sought “would not affect outlays, or the number of individuals with insurance coverage.”

Alker said his projection “is not surprising” given that the CBO expects the states to have enough money. However, she said, a recession or natural disasters could change the equation.

“The contingency fund is intended to provide states the peace of mind that if they run out of CHIP funds because of increased enrollment, the federal government will step in,” Alker said.

Poliquin’s office pointed out that since 1974, Democratic and Republican presidents have proposed $76 billion in cuts to federal spending through rescission. Congress approved a third of the suggested cuts. No rescission efforts have succeeded since President Bill Clinton sat in the White House.

Poliquin was among the lawmakers who approved a budget in January that included at least six more years for CHIP, which his office called “the longest and most generous extension of the CHIP program in its 20-year history.”

Funding for the program is set at $21.5 billion in the 2018 fiscal year, with the figure rising each year until it reaches $25.9 billion for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.

Most experts who have weighed in think the rescission proposal is likely to pass the GOP-controlled House but may face opposition in the Senate, where Republicans have a thinner margin.

The American College of Physicians, which opposes the CHIP cuts, said it is concerned with the procedure lawmakers are using to deal with the proposed reductions.

Ana Maria Lopez, the group’s president, said relying on a rushed procedure “with no hearings or testimony or markups about the impact of these cuts, as is the case for annual appropriations bills, is a poor process for Congress to establish its budgetary priorities.”

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U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (AP file photo)

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