CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Calling health-care policy perhaps the most important thing he's done in his career, Sen. Jay Rockefeller spent several hours Friday promoting the Children's Health Insurance Program and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
"In the 50 years that I've been in public service in West Virginia, I don't know of anything I've done that makes as much difference as health care in general and the CHIP program," Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said at a meeting with doctors and health professionals at the Schoenbaum Center on Charleston's West Side.
Rockefeller was a primary sponsor of CHIP when it first passed in 1997. The program, combined with Medicaid, provides health insurance to all children in West Virginia whose families make less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level -- about $59,000 for a family of three.
In combination with Medicaid, CHIP provides health insurance to more than 180,000 children in West Virginia. That's just less than half of all the children in the state.
CHIP is supposed to continue through 2019, but its funding only runs through 2015.
"I'm always terrified, with the political makeup of Congress that we have now, of CHIP getting cut," Rockefeller said.
CHIP and Medicaid were spared from the recent automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, but their budgets and those of programs such as Social Security and Medicare, are sure to be heavily debated this fall as Congress and the president attempt to raise the nation's debt ceiling and pass a budget to ward off a government shutdown.
Sharon Carte, the director of CHIP in West Virginia, said the program has virtually eliminated the number of kids who cannot afford to see a doctor.
"I've been at national conferences where I talked to nurses and doctors who said, 'We see these children and we didn't know what we could do with them, we could do a minimum amount,'" Carte said. "We're now at a point where the memory of children who didn't have coverage . . . . That's a bygone era."
Nationwide, the rate of uninsured children is less than 10 percent, about half of what it is for adults.
Getting people signed up for CHIP has been challenging. Some of the misconceptions that people initially had about CHIP are likely to resurface in October, when major provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect, officials said.
Lucintha Hiles works for the state Department of Health and Human Resources as an outreach coordinator, helping people sign up for CHIP. She initially worked just in Boone County but now works statewide.
She described meeting with scores of parents who thought they made too much money for their children to get health insurance or were reluctant to rely on a government program.
"You really had to twist some arms because people get worried and say, 'I don't take charity.' I had to tell them, 'You work and pay taxes; this is your taxes paid back to you,'" Hiles said.
Hiles said that when her son was growing up with diabetes in Boone County, they had to drive up to Charleston to go to WV Health Right for insulin and medical care. CHIP was enacted a little too late for her son, who was 17 in 1997.
Despite his mother's work, even Hiles' son didn't know about CHIP's availability.
"My son lost his job; he's now legally blind," Hiles said. "So they thought, 'What are we going to do?' My grandson's Elijah. They said, 'He ain't going to have insurance.' I said, 'Oh yes he is, because I know how to get him an application.'"