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More money in coffers, fewer kids in KidCare

There are 123,000 fewer children who have subsidized health care in Florida this year, so legislators want to make some changes.

Published April 18, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - One year ago, Florida legislators faced public pressure to deal with a growing waiting list of children needing subsidized health care.

Their answer was to spend enough money to enroll all the children who were waiting, and then stop keeping the politically charged waiting list.

A year later, they have the opposite problem: 123,000 fewer children have insurance, and more than $100-million remains unspent.

The number of KidCare participants declined from 363,000 last April to 240,000 this month, a one-third decline in a year.

So legislators are trying to avoid further embarrassment by allowing year-round enrollment instead of limiting it to January and September.

The House and Senate are poised to pass legislation as early as this week to make it easier for parents to enroll in the program. But it is possible the state's action will be too little, too late.

"We think we need to encourage as much as we can, more children, and if folks fell through the cracks, I'm sorry. I apologize," said House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, a member of the House leadership a year ago.

The state now has enough money for an "unprecedented" number of children to enroll, KidCare administrator Rose Naff said. But unless changes are made, Florida could be forced to return more than $100-million in federal money, because the state must give back money it doesn't spend by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

A waiting list will be needed only if more children enroll than the state can afford, which seems unlikely.

Florida budgeted $531-million for KidCare this year and could end the year with a surplus of $160-million.

This is the second time in four months that legislators have pushed for changes in KidCare. In a special session in December, lawmakers abolished the extra paperwork demands they placed on parents earlier last year to reduce fraud.

A year ago, Democratic legislators called on Republican leaders to spend enough money to take 90,000 applicants off the waiting list at a cost of $145-million.

They did that, but lawmakers eliminated the waiting list and limited enrollment to two months out of the year.

Advocates for the poor called that a mistake.

"It's difficult for folks to take advantage of something when it's only available for a month," said Karen Woodall, a health care advocate. "They tried something different and it didn't work. The important thing is they were willing to address that."

The latest KidCare legislation is sponsored by Rep. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise.

"We have had some unintended consequences and we all have to work together and fix them," Rich said Monday. "It's about kids. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. Ensuring that all these children have access to health care is what we should be concerned about."'

Said Garcia: "We didn't know we were going to get into this logjam when we put (in) the two enrollment periods. We thought it was the right thing to do. The great thing about this process is that if something isn't working right, you can come back and change it."

Lawmakers hope to pass the legislation (HB 569 and SB 1324) this week and get it to Gov. Jeb Bush by next week. The law would become effective immediately, allowing open enrollments immediately.

KidCare is paid for with state and federal money. It was created in 1998 to make affordable health insurance available to uninsured children from low-income families.

Family enrollment peaked in 2003, and the Legislature ended a continuous enrollment policy because of fears that not enough money would be available.

As a result of that decision, tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list until last spring.

[Last modified April 18, 2005, 20:18:01]

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