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    State leaves millions for kids unspent

    Advocates say more people could have been helped with the leftover $69-million.

    By WAYNE WASHINGTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


    When the federal government set aside $270-million three years ago to help insure Florida's poor children, the state was given an ultimatum: Spend the money by the deadline or lose access to whatever's left over.

    That deadline is today, and the state still has $69-million unspent.

    State health officials say it took just $201-million to accomplish their mission of providing affordable health care to the state's poor children.

    But people critical of how the program was managed find it absurd that $69-million was not spent in a state as large as Florida.

    Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, said the state didn't do enough to reach out to non-English speakers and farm workers, many of whom are wary of government programs because of residency concerns.

    "We need a more relevant, respectful way of reaching parents," Levine said. "If you're 66 in America, no matter what, you're guaranteed health care. But if you're 16 or 6 years old or 6 months old, you've got to beg and borrow for health care. We can afford better."

    Three years ago, Congress set aside $4.2-billion for states to insure children. Any state that didn't spend all of the money after three years agreed to return the remaining portion for distribution to states that did use all of their funding.

    With its share, Florida launched a program called KidCare, which offers health insurance programs for eligible children from birth through age 18. While the premiums depend on a household's size and income, many families covered under KidCare pay $15 a month for a full range of health services.

    Since KidCare was started, the state has insured nearly 170,000 children, said Bob Sharpe, the state's Agency for Health Care Administration's assistant director for Medicaid. By next year, he said, about 280,000 children will be covered.

    Sharpe thinks the plan will cover all of the state's needy children.

    However, Kristine McGrath, public information manager for KidCare, said 370,000 poor children in Florida are eligible for state health insurance programs but aren't currently enrolled.

    Local health care officials think all of the $270-million could have been spent.

    "I was more surprised that we stand to lose as much as we do," said Cretta Johnson, director of Hillsborough County's Health and Social Services Department. "Some of that money certainly could have been used to insure more children."

    Florida was not alone in ending up with a surplus after three years. Just nine states managed to spend all of the money they were allocated.

    All of the states with surpluses would benefit under a law being pushed in Congress. Legislators are working to allow Florida and the other states to keep a portion of the surplus for two more years.

    A bill passed the Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives on Tuesday that would give the states a chance to use 60 percent of the unspent portion. The other 40 percent would go to states that spent all of their original allotment.

    If passed, Florida would get to spend $41-million of $69-million is was supposed to return today. The 60-40 split is a compromise. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, had pushed for states such as Florida to retain all of the unspent money. But states that acted quickly and spent all of their money wouldn't go along.

    Some version of the bill is expected to pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law.

    While he thinks the state will do fine without the money, Sharpe would like to be able to spend the $69-million.

    Being allowed to use some or all of that money would allow the state more flexibility to expand its program, he said.

    "We would like to keep the money," Sharpe said, "but we have enough money -- state and federal -- to take care of our people."

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