09/19/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

To Protect Our Kids, We Must Extend the Children's Health Insurance Program

From the beginning of my career in public service, I've always cared deeply about helping our children. When I arrived in Emmons, West Virginia, as a VISTA worker, there were countless children in the community who'd never seen a doctor or a dentist. Their family just couldn't afford it. To get them the care they needed, I packed my Jeep with kids and drove them to their first dental appointment at a clinic in Charleston.

That experience, like so many of my memories from Emmons, stuck with me. It instilled in me a sense that we can and must do better for our children. One of the most important things we can do for them is to give them a healthy start and the care they need to succeed.

As a member of the Children's Commission in the 1990s, I joined other members in recommending a national health care program for children. And in 1997 such a program came to life with the creation of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). CHIP was the first public health program specifically aimed at addressing the unique health needs of children. To build on CHIP's success, I pushed for the bipartisan reauthorization of CHIP alongside Senators Kennedy and Snowe in 2009. The program was created and reauthorized through bipartisan support, and has been praised by state governors from both parties. And it is easy to see why. CHIP works.

Before CHIP, nearly a quarter of our nation's kids were uninsured because they couldn't access affordable coverage. CHIP addressed a significant coverage gap for families whose income was too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford private coverage. Today, under 8 percent are uninsured. With any child going without care, it is that much more important that this safety-net program continues.

This week in the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Health Care, I chaired an important hearing with my colleagues to discuss CHIP's future. Although CHIP funding expires in 2015, the program is authorized through 2019. Failing to extend CHIP funding in this Congress could send our state governments, hospitals, and health plans into an all-out tailspin as they try to adjust their budgets and plans on short notice. Our state legislatures and budget offices are relying on us to act now. We can't let them down, and we certainly can't put millions of children's health at jeopardy.

Extending funding for CHIP will make sure the children and pregnant women who rely on CHIP's care and services are able to keep their health care coverage. With literally millions of kids' health at stake, such an extension is a must-pass effort. And importantly, we must pass an extension this Congress so our states have time to budget and plan to make their programs as efficient and effective as possible.

Not only do we know our states are counting on us, but we also know that shifting these millions of lower-income families into private plans would place an unnecessary financial burden on working families. We owe our kids so much more.

Just as I sought to care for the kids in Emmons 50 years ago, I will continue fighting for their care up until my last day in the Senate. That includes protecting the health care coverage they deserve. No child should go without health care -- and they won't have to if Congress acts now. I urge my colleagues to do something worthwhile with the time we have left this Congress and extend the Children's Health Insurance Program.