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    Wait is over for kids' insurance

    Money from the Juvenile Welfare Board takes 1,900 off a waiting list in Pinellas.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


    For months, Pinellas has been the only county in Florida where needy children languished on a waiting list for subsidized health insurance.

    But on Thursday, the Juvenile Welfare Board voted to wipe out the waiting list and pour $213,000 in local matching dollars into the Healthy Kids insurance program. That opens the program's doors to roughly 1,900 children, some of whom had been waiting for insurance since July.

    "We took 2,000 children off a waiting list today," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, a member of the welfare board. "I want to thank staff again for finding that money."

    The welfare board had provided matching dollars in recent years but made it clear it was helping to get the new program started in Pinellas, not taking on the role of permanent financier. The agency has several objections to the financing of the program.

    But the board had come under pressure lately to provide the money, and the heat was turned up last week when local legislators met with board officials and strongly urged them to step up to the plate, at least for this year.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said he told officials that "I thought it was disgraceful that a wealthy county like Pinellas" had so many children on a waiting list. Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, agreed: "We just felt that was a travesty." Rep. Charles Justice, D-St. Petersburg, said he understood the board's perspective but added, "I think the benefits of the program are pretty high."

    The welfare board's executive director, James Mills, said the board still has long-term objections to taking on the burden but decided it should help the children who need the care.

    "This board has historically prided itself on acting in the best interests of children. At some point, that has to be the linchpin," Mills said.

    The program covers more than 168,000 Florida children, nearly 6,000 of them in Pinellas, where parents pay a monthly premium of $15 per child, plus co-pays of $3 to $5 per office visit.

    Pinellas is one of 35 counties that contributes a "local match," which means the program gets $4 for every $1 contributed by the county. But other counties have no local match requirement, and few have to pay the 20-percent match shouldered by Pinellas.

    In some counties, such as Hillsborough, the local match is raised through a special sales tax for health care needs. Most counties with the larger match requirements tap into government funds, said Jennifer Kaiser Lloyd, director of external affairs for Florida Healthy Kids Corp.

    Welfare board members said the local Healthy Kids organization had not aggressively sought other sources of money, preferring instead to let the taxpayer-financed board pick up the tab. Some said they had heard that Morton Plant Hospital's foundation had not even been approached. They urged the group to seek out other contributors.

    "I think it is incumbent on your organization" to do so, said State Attorney Bernie McCabe, a board member.

    Elizabeth Rugg said Healthy Kids has worked hard to raise money, but it's a tough sell. She's the executive director of the Suncoast Health Council, the local fiscal agent for Healthy Kids. She said employers are struggling with their own health care costs. Hospitals have been barred by federal law from contributing money, on the grounds it could be a conflict of interest. Hospital foundations often insist that money they give stay within their own hospital, something Healthy Kids can't guarantee. In fact, she said she had contacted Morton Plant by e-mail but was told that Healthy Kids wouldn't be eligible for contributions.

    She said that besides the money from the welfare board, Healthy Kids has raised matching funds of $75,000 from the county government and $70,000 from the United Way, but none from other private sources this year. In addition to the $213,000 it voted to give Thursday, the welfare board previously gave $60,000 this year.

    The welfare board said it's unfair that Pinellas pays a 20-percent local match while some other counties pay nothing. Mills said he worries that there is no way to know whether the program's costs will spiral higher, and no way to stop them from doing so.

    That's why welfare board members have said they fear that Heathy Kids costs could take away from other board programs, if they become the board's sole responsibility.

    Recent coverage

    Bush: Counties must help kids (January 13, 2001)

    Children's insurance at issue (January 12, 2001)

    Keep the kids healthy (January 11, 2001)

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