By Amanda Litvinov
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It’s technically not part of Audrey Nichols’s job as bookkeeper at Landmark Elementary School in Little Rock, Ark., to help families enroll in programs like Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but she routinely does so by referring families to her daughter, who is a social worker with the Department of Human Services.
Nichols’s school once had a home liaison on staff who would have helped families that qualify enroll in Medicaid or CHIP. But that position disappeared several years ago due to budget cuts, even though the needs of the community have hardly diminished.
Over 80 percent of students at Landmark Elementary are from low-income families.
Nichols has helped to fill the gap that was left when the liaison position was cut. “I guess it’s because I’ve been here for over 20 years, so families just tend to gravitate toward me,” Nichols says.
But help for some of those families may soon vanish altogether, as Congress has not renewed funding for CHIP, which extends health coverage to children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance.
Now, as many as 9 million students are at risk of losing health care.
Some states will run out of CHIP funding as soon as December. North Carolina, Arizona, California, Minnesota, and Utah are the first states expected to exhaust their funds, along with the District of Columbia, according to the most recent estimates.
Arkansas, where Nichols lives and works, is among the states that will run out of CHIP funding between January and March 2018 (along with Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington).
Nichols is frustrated that lawmakers haven’t taken steps to preserve a program that has helped so many children and families, and that has long had bipartisan support.
“This funding could mean the difference in terms of whether a student will receive the speech therapy or physical therapy they need,” said Nichols. “It could mean the difference in terms of whether the school will have a nurse, or whether a child from a poor family will get a health screening that could prevent a health-related barrier to learning.”
More than half of the 9 million children served by CHIP are eligible for services provided in their schools through state Medicaid programs.
Prior to the beginning of each academic year, school districts commit to the necessary staff and contracted services—for example, speech-language pathologists, audiologists, occupational therapists, school nurses, and mental health professionals.
Although the details of each state’s CHIP program differ, the bottom line is that without the federal share of funding, many states will be unable to continue providing services at the same rate.
Nichols also has a personal story about school-based health services that she wishes she could share with members of Congress.
“My son has Down’s Syndrome. He’s now 30 years old, but through his school he had occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy,” Nichols said. “For a lawmaker to stand outside the world these kids live in and say, ‘This is an unnecessary service,’ is wrong.”
She seriously doubts that her son could have gained all of the verbal and physical skills he has were it not for the specialized therapies he received at school. And she knows that her son’s story is just one of millions.
“I wish some of these lawmakers could spend a day with these families and see what they are dealing with every day,” says Nichols. “It’s way bigger than dollars. It’s about lives and the well-being of the next generation.”