Care for kids cannot wait

Published May 3, 2007

The Florida Legislature has run out of time on property tax relief, but lawmakers do have time in the last two days of the session to help kids and avoid national embarrassment. They should cut through bureaucratic fights and competing special interests to make it easier for uninsured low-income children to get and keep health coverage. It would be a travesty if this doesn't get done, because thousands of kids would lose the opportunity to get health care and Florida would stand to lose millions in federal matching dollars.

Florida KidCare is aimed at providing health coverage for uninsured kids in families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $40, 000 a year for a family of four. Medicaid covers some of those children, but the controversy is centered on those covered by the public-private partnership, Florida Healthy Kids. That program was a national model when it was created more than 15 years ago, and just three years ago it covered more than 337, 000 children.

In fact, it proved to be too popular for former Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers. They eliminated a long waiting list in 2004 and tightened the rules instead of finding the money to meet demand. While some of those restrictions were later reversed, the program never fully recovered and covers just under 215, 000 kids now. Thousands of kids lose health care coverage every month just because their families lose Medicaid eligibility but can't figure out how to sign up for Healthy Kids.

The House has passed a comprehensive bill that streamlines eligibility requirements and cuts red tape. But it is controversial because it would reopen enrollment to children of state employees, legal immigrants and - theoretically, at least - illegal immigrants. There also are unresolved issues regarding whether Healthy Kids should be transferred from a nonprofit corporation to a state agency, what medical services should be covered and the reimbursement rates for managed care plans. Senate President Ken Pruitt said Wednesday it's too late to straighten everything out.

But it's not too late to do what's right and streamline the enrollment and eligibility requirements. Doing nothing sends the wrong signal to Washington, where Congress is debating the reauthorization of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program. Florida already has lost millions in federal matching money it isn't spending because it hasn't boosted enrollment in Healthy Kids. It could lose millions in additional dollars as other states beef up their programs while Florida's withers.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who heads the nonprofit Healthy Kids Corp., and House members mounted last-ditch efforts Wednesday to develop a streamlined proposal and persuade the Senate to reconsider. With hundreds of thousands of uninsured kids in Florida and hundreds of millions in federal dollars at stake, it would be irresponsible for legislators to go home Friday without approving some commonsense changes.