Not a Bargaining CHIP

by Katie Ellis, Gena Lenti, and Kavia Khosla, MS1s

It had been over two months since CHIP expired when we sat down at our usual table in the corner of the Starbucks across from campus to meet with Eric.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was introduced in 1997 under bipartisan support; it provides insurance coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance. Financed by federal block grants, CHIP was first funded for ten years, and has been reauthorized every two years ever since. However, since its last reauthorization, Congress allowed CHIP funding to expire on September 30th of this year.

Eric Sullivan, MS3, approached the three of us as co-leaders of Doctors for America (DFA) to collaborate on an effort to raise awareness about CHIP and pressure Congress to act. We came together earlier this year over our passion for gun violence prevention, and in November, ended up going to the state Capitol in Springfield to lobby for a gun control bill, donning our white coats in public for the first time. We decided that co-leading Doctors for America, whose mission is "putting patients before politics," would give us a natural platform to continue our advocacy work. We had all heard about CHIP and Congress’s failure to reauthorize the bill, but after doing a bit more research into the CHIP crisis, we began to see just how massive the problem really was. This program provides health insurance for over 9 million low- and middle-income children, and yet two months after its expiration, nobody was talking about it. CHIP was being overshadowed in the media by the big-ticket political conversations, such as healthcare reform and the tax overhaul. From the few stories that had appeared, it was clear that reauthorization efforts were stalled because CHIP was being used as a bargaining tool to decrease funding for other public health programs.

Students at Federal Plaza

We knew timing was sensitive, with Congress’s winter recess starting in a few weeks, so we immediately took action on Eric’s initial idea of holding a press conference. We put some initial feelers out to Lurie Children’s Hospital, University of Chicago physicians, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, unsure who, if anyone, would have time for a short-notice event. But the response we received was overwhelming. There was no question: support for CHIP was strong, and physicians and advocates were ready and willing to speak up. They just needed a platform.

Ten days and hundreds of emails later we had confirmed seven speakers, including a woman who uses CHIP for her two children, and received tons of support from our classmates and other medical students around Chicago who wanted to participate. After receiving advice that a combined rally and press conference may receive more press coverage, we decided to face the cold and hold the rally at Federal Plaza. The decision paid off—at least a dozen press outlets attended, including journalists from the Chicago Tribune, WTTW, and WBEZ. The experience was nerve-racking, but we learned a lot, and were incredibly inspired throughout the process by the amount of people willing to put time and energy into the effort. We were especially moved by the CHIP recipient, who came all the way from Maria Shelter that day to speak up in front of a crowd of more than fifty people and cameras about the legislation that covered her daughter’s complicated medical expenses.

Overall, we learned that while organizing is challenging, as is sacrificing study and sleeping hours to put time and energy into activism, it is possible for medical students to make a difference. As first year medical students, we have more time and energy than we will have for the rest of our careers, and we should all be taking full advantage of that to stand up for what we believe in.