Health Plan for Legal Immigrant Kids Stalled

Mar 20, 2015

A bill that would extend low-cost KidCare health insurance to roughly 25,000 children of legal immigrants has gotten further in the Florida Senate than ever before, but remains stalled in the House.

The proposal (HB 829/SB 294) would eliminate a five-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrants to qualify for KidCare, a subsidized insurance program that serves children from low- and moderate-income families.

It's the third year that Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has sponsored the proposal, which last year passed one committee in each chamber. But this year, with Garcia the chairman of the influential Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, the bill has unanimously passed two Senate panels and is poised to go to its final committee.

Garcia said Thursday that KidCare expansion will be on the table when the House and Senate negotiate a final health-care budget later in the legislative session.

"We'll definitely work that issue,'' he said.

But the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, has yet to get a hearing after being assigned to the House Health Innovation Subcommittee, Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee and Health & Human Services Committee.

"What's driving a lot of that is our uncertainty around some of the budget provisions that we have right now," said House Health & Human Services Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. "As that becomes more certain, we'll probably have a better answer."

The House and Senate are $5 billion apart on their overall health-care budget proposals. The Senate this week released a proposal that includes $2.8 billion to provide health care to uninsured Floridians and $2.2 billion to extend a critical hospital funding program known as the Low Income Pool -- although House leaders did not include either in their initial budget.

In that context, said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R- Miami, the $4.8 million cost of La Rosa's KidCare bill is "a rounding error in our budget."

Diaz, who sponsored the bill in the past two sessions, can't do so this year as chairman of the Regulatory Affairs Committee. But he still calls it his top priority.

"Obviously, with the Low Income Pool being up in the air and a big discussion about Medicaid expansion in general, every dollar counts in health care, so I understand why $4 million is a lot," he said. "But I do think it is dollars that are well spent, and these kids could absolutely cost our state money today if they go into the emergency room."

The $4.8 million estimated cost is lower than in the past. In 2013, when Garcia and Diaz first offered the bill, the Agency for Health Care Administration estimated its cost at $500 million, which would have included all immigrant children in Florida.

It was "dead on arrival," with that price tag, Diaz said, and didn't get a hearing in either chamber. Since then, he and Garcia have been careful to emphasize that the measure applies only to legal immigrants.

"Ultimately it is cost-effective to give these kids care now," Diaz said. "You have 25,000 to 40,000 kids, some of them will have issues, some of them will end up in the emergency room. You start doing the math, and it gets to $4 million very quickly."

Garcia, meanwhile, said he'll continue pushing the proposal from his chamber.

"We're going to pass it out of the Senate and send it over there (to the House),'' he said.

The bill's supporters hope that Garcia's commitment -- and his new status -- will help during budget negotiations. Said Diaz, "That's given the bill prospects that it's never had before."

"Hopefully there will be enough push from the Senate to get it moving," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy and a longtime lobbyist on KidCare issues.

News Service of Florida Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this story.