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FL about to lose $ millions for kids

By Gary Fineout
4/2/2009 © Health News Florida
Florida could miss out on millions in federal aid that would benefit children unless it makes changes to the KidCare program.

The Florida Health Policy Center has concluded in a new report that the state could draw down additional federal money under the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program,  passed by Congress and signed into law in February by President Barack Obama.

But so far legislators have shown sparse interest in making the necessary changes to qualify for the money. Those changes include streamlining the current procedures used to enroll families in Florida KidCare, the umbrella program that includes Florida Healthy Kids, which provides low-cost health insurance to families who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, and Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, filed bills that call for making those changes to KidCare, but neither bill has been heard yet. Rich’s is scheduled to come up during next week’s Senate Health Regulation Committee meeting.

Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said some lawmakers worried the legislation could cost the state extra money at a time it is grappling with a $6 billion budget deficit. But Woodall counters that Florida will lose money it is now eligible for unless lawmakers act. She notes the new law changed the time states have to draw down aid from three years to two years.

“We have got to fix this program, we have got to remove these barriers,’’ Woodall said. “These bills are designed to remove barriers. We are not adding new populations of children. We are trying to fix this so kids who are currently eligible can get in the program.’’

Rich’s bill would make children eligible for coverage 60 days after their family loses private health insurance instead of waiting six months. The measure would also allow electronic verification of financial eligibility.

Gov. Charlie Crist recommended spending $52 million to increase KidCare enrollment in the coming budget year, which starts July 1. But so far legislators have unveiled budget plans that call for keeping enrollment at its current levels.

The report by the Florida Health Policy Center says the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program includes rewards and penalties based on whether states do a better job of enrolling and retaining children. (Disclosure: Florida Health Policy Center is the major sponsor for Health News Florida).

Approximately 239,000 children in Florida are covered by the Florida KidCare program outside of Medicaid. The state set aside nearly $500 million for KidCare during this current fiscal year, but not all of the money has been spent. 

Florida ranks third in the nation with the highest number of uninsured children, according to recent studies. Approximately 700,000 are uninsured; 72% of them are estimated to be eligible for KidCare.

--Contact Gary Fineout.