A Deer Lodge mother breathed a sigh of relief this week when the U.S. Senate, facing a government shutdown, voted to pass a temporary funding bill that reauthorized the Children's Health Insurance Program for six additional years.

Passage of the measure means Danielle Highley, who is now 9, will continue to receive the care she needs in Missoula to treat a rare form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis – a disease that also affects her vision.

“CHIP is life changing – it means life for my daughter,” said Danielle's mother, Glory Blue Earth-Highley. “Without it, it would set her on a path of disability and eventually losing her eye, her quality of life.”

Like others across the state, Blue Earth-Highley has kept a close watch on D.C. politics over the past few days as efforts to end a government shutdown played out.

While the Senate's vote merely offered a patchwork budget to keep government open for 17 days, it did provide relief to families across Montana by funding the Children's Health Insurance Program for a six more years.

The state of Montana, along with several others, was set to run out of funding by March, meaning the 24,000 Montana children insured under CHIP could have lost coverage and with it, essential medical care.

“Without coverage, my daughter could have been facing joint replacement by the age of 10, or losing her vision in her right eye,” said Blue Earth-Highley. “I believe that we can do better for our kids.”

Danielle was born healthy, though a bout with the flu when she was 18 months old triggered a rare auto-immune disease that affected her joints and eye. At the time, Blue Earth-Highley said, she was covered by Medicaid, which helped fund Danielle's medications and care.

Blue Earth-Highly didn't know how much those medications cost until she lost her Medicaid coverage.

“When I asked our pharmacy how much her medication was, they told me it was $6,300 a month for two injections,” said Blue Earth-Highley. “That's as much as a couple of houses in Anaconda. I don't even know who can afford that.”

Given the cost of the prescriptions and the family's lack of health care, Danielle went without her medications. Not only did it affect her body and health, her mother said, it forced her to miss much of the third grade.

Because of it, she fell behind in school and had to take the grade over.

With the support of CHIP, Danielle Highley receives her treatment every four weeks by an intravenous infusion at Community Medical Center in Missoula.
With the support of CHIP, Danielle Highley receives her treatment every four weeks by an intravenous infusion at Community Medical Center in Missoula.

“She lost her ability to walk and she couldn't stand anymore because it was too painful,” Blue Earth-Highley said. “I couldn't afford the medication. She dealt with pain all over her body. Her joints were warm to the touch and her eye was inflamed.”

Danielle was later accepted into the state's CHIP program and has since started on new medications. She receives her treatment every four weeks by an intravenous infusion at Community Medical Center in Missoula.

Back on proper treatment with the support of CHIP, Danielle is also back on her feet – and back in school.

Yet up until 24 hours ago, the family was uncertain over the fate of the health insurance program, even as Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with Gov. Bullock, urged Congress to fund the program on its own accord.

Those efforts date back to early December, when Congress took up its tax reform plan. While the Republican majority passed the tax plan, it didn't fund CHIP, at least not until Monday.

“I can't imagine a more frightening moment as a parent than to have an 18-month-old child suddenly lose her ability to walk,” Daines said Sunday, sharing Danielle's story on the Senate floor. “Without CHIP, Danielle's family would be unable to afford the medication she needs. Without CHIP, Danielle wouldn't be walking.”

Blue Earth-Highly said congressional politics have real impacts on people's lives, including that of her little girl. While she tires of the partisan bickering, Monday's passage of the CHIP program helped her breathe a little easier.

It also came as welcome news to Dr. Dean French, the CEO of Community Medical Center, who said the program plays a fundamental role in the well-being of thousands of Montana children.

“So many Montana families who rely on CHIP for their children's health care can breathe a sigh of relief,” said French. “The six-year reauthorization of CHIP will continue to fund the Healthy Montana Kids program, which is helping some of our state's sickest kids get the vital treatment and preventive care they deserve to live happier, healthy lives."