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SALT LAKE CITY — Two dozen protesters gathered with songs, prayers and menorahs on the first night of Hanukkah, urging Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congress to sustain a federal health insurance program for children in low-income families.
"Hanukkah calls on us to be holy in our actions," said Benjamin Luks-Morgan, an organizer with Jewish Action Utah — Bend the Arc. "We want you to make good on your promise to get (Children's Health Insurance Program) funded."
The Tuesday evening gathering at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City was boisterous and largely cheerful. Demonstrators said congressional "inaction" on the Children's Health Insurance Program goes against the holiday's spirit of helping those in need, and that it puts thousands of Utah families at risk.
The group decried the uncertain fate of the program that provides coverage for an estimated 20,000 Utah kids, and 8.9 million nationally, according to 2016 estimates from the health policy think tank the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Federal money for the program ran out Sept. 30 and Congress has yet to renew it, though Hatch has said he is confident his colleagues will pass his proposal to extend the program by year's end.
At Tuesday's rally, Luks-Morgan urged Jews and others to call Hatch's office through the end of Hanukkah's eighth night. He said the faith teaches that "saving a life is more important than nearly any other action you can do."
The Utah Department of Health expects to be able to offer CHIP coverage through January. The department is weighing whether and when to send letters to families to inform them they might lose their coverage, a department spokeswoman said Monday.
The lapse "is not just mind-boggling, it's also shameful," Jessie Mandle, senior health policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children, said at the rally. "No family deserves to be going through the stress and uncertainty they are about to if Congress doesn't act soon."
Pediatrician Kristine Campbell said a child enrolled in the program came into her clinic recently with asthma. Even under poor air quality on Tuesday, the child didn't have to go to the emergency room.
"The problem is, the mother sat there with me and she was really worried. She didn't know how she was going to pay for her medical bills come January," Campbell said. "She didn't know how she was going to keep her out of the hospital."
The group sang their own version of the song "Eight Days of Hanukkah" that Hatch is credited with writing in 2009.
The protesters reworked Hatch's lyrics, singing that "you can bring CHIP back to families in need," before lighting candles for the first of eight nights.
It's the second demonstration this week from advocates calling for the program's renewal. On Monday, Alliance for a Better Utah supporters brought a petition with 650 signatures and a bin of 20,000 chocolate chips representing the Utah children enrolled in the program to Hatch's Salt Lake office.
The Senate's senior member helped craft CHIP in 1997, and Congress has reauthorized it three times. The program now insures children in households that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but bring in less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — $49,200 for a family of four in 2017.
Hatch's proposal, the KIDS Act of 2017, would extend the program's federal funding for five years. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a new round of CHIP funding in November, but it's not clear how that would reconcile with Hatch's proposal.
Hatch's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday. On Monday, Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said the senator is sensitive to Utahns' concerns about CHIP and was listening to constituents, noting his pending legislation. The bill awaits a vote in the Senate, then the House.