Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board

A mobile home park in Manatee after Hurricane Irma struck.
A mobile home park in Manatee after Hurricane Irma struck. Herald file photo

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming public opposition. Then Congress raced to approve a $1.5 trillion tax cut that primarily benefits businesses and the wealthy.

Yet there is no rush to extend two essential programs vital to so many Floridians: Federal flood insurance for businesses and homeowners, and health insurance for children from low-income families. Congress should not stop working until these real priorities are addressed.

Flood insurance

The National Flood Insurance Program is set to expire Friday, yet Congress remains unable to compromise on a long-term extension of the program that is billions in debt and desperately needs reform. If the program isn’t at least extended, home sales in flood-prone areas would be stalled throughout Manatee-Sarasota, Tampa Bay and the nation. Homebuyers with federally backed mortgages in those areas are required to have flood insurance, and NFIP could not write new policies if Congress does nothing and the program is allowed to expire even for a short time. There is no justification for allowing that to happen.

The problem is too many members of Congress from inland states want residents in coastal states such as Florida — which accounts for more than one-third of all federal flood insurance polices — to shoulder far too much of the burden.

The House passed unfair legislation last month that gradually would eliminate subsidized rates and keep premiums rising too high and too fast. Floridians have received just $4.2 billion of the $58 billion in paid flood insurance claims over the last 40 years, and the notion that this insurance is primarily a sweet deal for wealthy waterfront homeowners is off base. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, notes that about seven of every 10 flood insurance policyholders in his Pinellas district live in homes that are not on the water and have average values of $190,000.

The long-term answer for overhauling flood insurance involves updating and detailing flood maps, fairly spreading the risk and stopping multiple claims on properties that should be elevated or bought and razed. The best short-term answer this week likely is to extend the flood insurance program as it is and try again next year.

Children’s Health Insurance Program

Florida is among at least 16 states expected to run out of federal money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program by the end of January. That threatens health coverage for about 215,000 kids in this state. Congress failed to reauthorize the program before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, and states have made do with the federal money on hand. Now the clock is running out, and so is the money.

Low-income families should not have to worry whether health care for their kids will disappear next month, and those children should not be pawns in a partisan fight in Congress. Ideally, Congress would approve Senate legislation this week that would steer more than $100 billion over five years to CHIP. If Congress can approve tax cuts that would add nearly $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit, surely it can spend a fraction of that amount to keep health insurance for kids from low-income families and worry about paying for it later.

Yet the reality is Congress is consumed with tax cuts and unlikely to make a long-term commitment to CHIP. At least enough money should be allocated to CHIP to ensure states have the cash to keep the program running through the first three months of 2018.

No one should leave Washington for Christmas without resolving this issue and easing the minds of parents desperate to maintain access to health care for their kids.