Jon Huntsman's Support For Children's Health Insurance Program Could Prove Next Campaign Stumbling Block

WASHINGTON -- When Jon Huntsman announces his candidacy for the presidency next week, it's unlikely that he'll mention what Utah officials say is one of his signature achievements. As Utah's governor, Huntsman greatly expanded health care coverage to thousands of uninsured children.

As governor, Huntsman expanded Utah's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP, formerly known as SCHIP), a taxpayer-funded, government-run entity. In fact, he turned it into an entitlement program.

Until 2007, Utah had limited enrollment in CHIP due to funding constraints, according to state Department of Health spokeswoman Kolbi Young. Huntsman highlighted the issue in his 2007 State of the State address:

"It is an irony that we live in a country which mandates insurance for our cars, but not for our children's health," Huntsman said. He then specifically called for millions of dollars more in CHIP funding.

Later that year, lawmakers appropriated an additional $4 million -- from tobacco settlement money and general funds -- to re-open CHIP and expand the number of children by under the program.

In 2008, Huntsman signed off on a bill that converted the program into open enrollment and guaranteed that funding would be allocated every year to keep the new entitlement viable, according to Young.

In interviews with The Huffington Post, former insiders from Huntsman's Utah administration praised CHIP's expansion.

John T. Nielsen, Huntsman's former adviser on health care reform, said it was a "great idea" and noted that the expansion had received support even from Utah's conservative legislature.

Dr. David Sundwall, a former executive director of Utah's Department of Health, said Huntsman's administration "got the concept" of opening CHIP's enrollment.

"[Huntsman] was looking to improve the health of kids; it was selective for children," Sundwall said, noting that under Huntsman CHIP became an entitlement program. "I think it just shows where his values are."

Officials in the health care policy world are often quick to praise the program, which provides matching federal funds to states to offer health insurance for children.

"It had bipartisan, gubernatorial support," recalled Dr. Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The question was just how far it went. ... The governors tended to like it, and it's always been popular in polls."

But reforms that proved popular in Utah may not serve Huntsman well in a Republican presidential primary.

Candidates are lining up against CHIP, and erstwhile supporters of the program are rejecting their former positions. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), one of the program's founders, has introduced legislation that could complicate its funding.

And while CHIP may remain popular in some statehouses, it's proved less so on the GOP campaign trail.

Back in 2007 then-candidates Sen. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney stood with President George W. Bush's rejection of the program's renewal.

At the time, fellow GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty -- then Governor of Minnesota and chairman of the National Governor's Association -- went against members of his party on CHIP and got dinged for it.

"At a time when he's trying to portray himself as a proponent of smaller government, his support for SCHIP expansion shows that he also has big government impulses,” read a Washington Examiner column, under the headline "Pawlenty's SCHIP Problem."

More recently, two prominent conservative groups -- Club for Growth and Freedom Works -- have also highlighted support for CHIP as a potential negative for Republican candidates this go-around.

Dean Clancy, legislative counsel and vice president for health care policy at Freedom Works, said his organization opposes CHIP. In fact, Freedom Works has just launched its "Retire Orrin Hatch" campaign in Utah in part because of the senator's role in creating the program.

"It will be an issue for us in that senate race," Clancy said. "Will it be an issue in the presidential race? I doubt it. It could be. If Huntsman gets in, maybe it gets mentioned."

Clancy's comments indicate that if Huntsman and Pawlenty are looking to avoid questions about CHIP on the 2012 campaign trail, they may be in luck. The program does not appear to be at the top of the list of issues conservative voters care about.

Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told The Huffington Post that his organization had yet to take a position on the matter. Still, he echoed the Examiner's four-year-old sentiment.

"I can tell you that government intervention in health care is generally disfavored by the Patriot membership," Meckler wrote in an email. "I can tell you that expansion of the program to 'children' up to 26 was opposed by all Tea Partiers I know."

While CHIP has yet to become as hot an issue as the health care insurance coverage mandate has, GOP hopefuls are already sending negative messages about the program.

In response to inquiries, Romney's campaign pointed to the former Massachusetts governor's 2007 opposition to CHIP.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spokesperson Joe DeSantis said the program should be strictly limited in the amount of funding it receives.

"It is one of many means tested programs that should be block granted to the states using the same successful principles as bipartisan welfare reform," DeSantis wrote HuffPost in an email.

Pawlenty's campaign sent along a 2009 Human Events interview in which the former governor attempted to renege his previous support.

"This is important," Pawlenty said in the interview. "At the time, I was chair of the National Governors Association and the NGA is asked from time to time to submit letters of support or opposition on matters before Congress. On SCHIP, we could not reach agreement as governors on the level of the program, if any, or any agreement on how to pay for it. Specifically, some Democratic governors wanted to raise taxes and Republican governors did not. So the NGA sent a vaguely worded letter saying we support the program and want it continued, but we took no position on the level or the funding. As you recall, there was a great dispute over how to pay for it. Eventually they settled on a tax increase, which some Republicans in Congress supported. I certainly did not."

Tim Miller, a spokesman for Huntsman's soon-to-be-announced presidential campaign declined to comment on the former governor's past support for CHIP. When asked repeatedly for a statement, Miller shot back a one-word response via email: "No."

Yet health care advocates and some of Huntsman's former colleagues think providing health care to children is not something that needs to be erased from the candidate's resume. Instead, they see a clear record of accomplishment. In April 2007, Utah government records show, there were 27,713 children enrolled in SCHIP. Four years later, there are 38,392 children in the program.

"We all need to see it for what it is," said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project. "It's a feather in his cap. We've seen a 30 percent decrease in our uninsured rate for kids -- real progress for all kids."

This article has been updated to include comment from Freedom Works' Paul Clancy.

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