The Children's Health Insurance Program is one of the best investments Texas can make in its future - providing children a healthy start in life. Yet, recent declines in CHIP enrollment are putting many of our children at risk.

These declines also place an increasing financial burden on local taxpayers who must fund uncompensated emergency room care, which is often the result when an uninsured child becomes ill. Additionally, by under-using federal matching programs, such as CHIP, Texas not only shortchanges its children, but also furthers its standing as a "donor" state. Since 2000, Texas has forfeited back to Washington more than $600 million in federal taxes paid by Texans, only to have these funds used to pay for programs in other states.

Some attempt to characterize the CHIP debate as a choice between a welfare state or limited government. This characterization fails to acknowledge the myriad of options in between that benefit our state as a whole. Others have theorized the declining CHIP enrollment is evidence of a growing economy. To the extent that a growing economy lessens dependence on government, a decline in CHIP enrollment would indeed be positive. The facts, unfortunately, suggest otherwise.

At the beginning of 2006, the state implemented new legislatively mandated policies that affected eligibility for CHIP. The state also switched to a new contractor responsible for enrolling applicants. Since those changes, enrollment in CHIP has declined by about 7,200 children per month, and renewal rates have dropped from an average of 83 percent to near 50 percent. Surveys have indicated that most families are attempting to renew their coverage at high rates (88 percent) but are encountering barriers and are simply not making it through the process. Many families attempting to renew coverage are actually moving to Medicaid, a sign that their financial situation is worse, not better.

In the end, it is Texas taxpayers who will pay the price as the uninsured show up in emergency rooms. This costly phenomenon is a clear reminder that keeping kids healthy affects them - and taxpayers - for the long term. The Institute of Medicine reports that uninsured children experience worse health and die sooner than insured children. It's much more economical to provide children with preventive care and access to health care when they need it rather than waiting until a complicated illness or an expensive chronic condition requires it.

Recently, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission granted a reprieve to 28,000 children who would have lost their CHIP coverage in May, saying the new system was preventing them from re-enrolling within allowed timeframes. The commission has committed to correcting the problem. We applaud it for stepping up to do the right thing for these children in the name of good government.

Good government makes the right kind of investment. It also helps eligible families use enhanced technology to navigate the CHIP enrollment process. Good government demands that the state discover the true reasons driving the mass exodus from CHIP. Good government is about stepping up to fix a problem when it is obvious that the problem is adversely affecting Texas families and taxpayers.

Our state has the opportunity to reverse these alarming trends and offer a brighter future to thousands of children. As state and local leaders seek ways to ensure a quality education for Texas children, we should keep in mind that a child's opportunity for a bright future begins with a healthy start in life.

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