To the surprise and delight of lawmakers who have long backed the proposal, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Tuesday called for eliminating a five-year waiting period for children of legal immigrants to be eligible for the state's KidCare health-insurance program.
"I got goose bumps," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who has backed the proposal throughout his House tenure. "This has been a long time coming."
Diaz and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, are sponsoring the proposal (SB 248 and HB 89) after four years of unsuccessfully trying to get the House to move forward with the issue. Neither knew Crisafulli would address the proposal Tuesday during a speech to open the 2016 legislative session.
KidCare is a subsidized program that serves children from low- and moderate-income families. Children of lawfully residing immigrants currently have to wait five years before they can become eligible. The proposed bills lifting the waiting period would not apply to undocumented immigrants.
"I believe the time has come," Crisafulli said. "These children and their parents have followed our laws and should be able to access the same services many Florida families can. … I ask for your full support of Chair Diaz' good bill."
A Senate bill analysis indicates eliminating the five-year waiting period would cover more than 17,000 children and cost $1.7 million in state general revenue. A House analysis puts the cost at $1.3 million.
"I think this bill rewards --- or at least acknowledges --- those that have gone through the system the right way," said Diaz, who is chairman of the House Regulatory Affairs Committee. "Because at the end of the day, the way our health system is set up, those that don't follow the rules, those who come here illegally, are still being taken care of in our hospitals."
Garcia said the proposal also has faced an uphill climb due to anti-immigration sentiment in the national political arena.
"That's the problem that we've always had," he said. "It's taken us some time to educate the members that it's not about illegally residing individuals but those who are here legally, and who should be entitled to all the services that any other child or any other family has."
Outside the House chamber, as health-care advocates and pro-immigrant groups gathered for a rally, word spread of Crisafulli's remarks.
Margarita Romo, 79, executive director of Farmworkers Self-Help Inc., which helps seasonal and migrant farm workers, said she has worked on the issue at least eight or nine years.
"It means a lot," she said. "Because kids have been sick, kids have had cancer. We've seen all kinds of situations where --- had this bill passed nine years ago --- there would be a lot of healthy kids today. At least, at least, now it's going to happen."
Garcia wasn't willing to go that far, but he was cautiously optimistic about Crisafulli's support.
"It makes it harder to defeat," he said. "I still have my fingers crossed."