The Florida Children and Youth Cabinet is calling on lawmakers to help the children of legal immigrants get health coverage through KidCare, a subsidized insurance program that serves children from low- and moderate-income families.
Cabinet members voted to send a letter to Senate Health Policy Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, urging him to support a proposal to eliminate a five-year waiting period for "lawfully residing immigrant children" to receive KidCare coverage.
The proposal would cover nearly 25,000 children and would cost roughly $1.4 million, according to Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek. In the past, estimates of the proposal's cost have been far higher.
The 2016 session will be the fourth year the measure (SB 248) by Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has come before the Legislature.
It easily passed the Senate in 2014 and 2015 -- including Bean's committee -- but stalled in the House. Earlier this year, House leaders said they couldn't find the money due to uncertainty about the health-care budget.
Supporters of the measure hope the backing of the Children and Youth Cabinet will encourage House leaders to change their minds.
Although immigration has been controversial in this election cycle, Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder, a member of the cabinet for six years, said he didn't see the bill as controversial.
"It got caught up last year in some of the Medicaid extension funding and other federal issues that the House had some issues with," he said. "I can't imagine this year it would have a problem."
But state agency heads with seats on the Children and Youth Cabinet expressed concerns about taking positions on the issue without knowing where Gov. Rick Scott stands on it.
"If we take a position, it needs to go to the governor's office before it goes to the Legislature," Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer said.
Dudek, whose agency would be responsible for administering the measure should it become law, said she couldn't take a position on a matter before the Legislature.
That touched off a passionate exchange with Uhlfelder and David Lawrence, chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida.
"Half the states do this already," Lawrence said. "Except for a little more than a million dollars in a close-to-$80-billion-budget of the state of Florida, this is fundamentally paid for. …It is shameful if we can't do something like this."
"We're talking about people legally in this state," Uhlfelder added. "We're talking about people being put on a wait list for five years because we can't agree on a definitional change in the statutes. … We can instantly help 25,000 children. It borders on total irresponsibility if we don't do this."Judy Schaechter, chairwoman of the pediatrics department at the University of Miami, warned that having sick children in school was a problem for everyone else who might be exposed.
"We need to get them health care so they don't have contagious diseases, they don't have the mental health conditions we've been talking about all afternoon," Schaechter said.
Cabinet Chairwoman Wansley Walters, a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, asked Dudek if the governor's office had requested the $1.4 million for the proposal in AHCA's legislative budget request.
"No," Dudek replied.
After the meeting, Walters said the cabinet supports the KidCare proposal, but that as a former state agency head under Scott, she understood her colleagues' concerns.
"There are processes that you are bound by, and until those processes have been completed, you have to step away from that position," she said. "I understand it and respect it."
Walters said she did not know Scott's position on the KidCare bill. The governor's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.