TAMPA — Aimee Eden brought her husband and infant daughter here from Washington, D.C., so she could attend graduate school at the University of South Florida. It was 2005, the economy was strong, and the couple figured he'd quickly find a job with health benefits.
When that didn't pan out, Eden added her husband and daughter to her student health plan, bringing their premium to about $9,000 a year. About a year later, their savings ran out.
One day, Eden, by then pregnant with her second child, met a woman who told her about KidCare, the state program to insure children.
Through KidCare, Eden received free prenatal coverage and Louisa was covered for just $15 a month. When son August was born, he also was covered until Eden's husband found full-time work with health benefits late last year.
"You can't even put it into words," said Eden, 38, who brought Louisa and August, now 4 and 2, to see Gov. Charlie Crist sign into law a new bill to help more families get into KidCare. "It's really something to pay $15 a month and to know that your kid can go to the doctor."
About 800,000 Florida children have no health insurance; around 500,000 of them are thought to be from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for the kind of programs that helped Eden's family.
Currently, KidCare has about 220,000 children enrolled, but it has money to cover thousands more. And even if your income isn't low enough to qualify for the subsidized rates, the program can still be a lower-cost option for health insurance.
For KidCare officials and advocates, the challenge is to get the word out.
Help in tough times
Even if you've tried before to get your child insured through KidCare and were turned away, advocates say it's worth giving it another shot. Call 1-888-540-5437 or go to www.floridakidcare.org to find out how to get your application going.
Why has this program led to so much confusion?
Changes made to KidCare over the years have made it difficult for families, leading many of those who are eligible to think it's not worth the hassle to even try applying.
Medicaid creates some of the confusion. Many of the state's poorest children — 1.3 million — are covered through Medicaid. But to qualify, applicants must earn no more than the federal poverty level, currently $22,050 annually for a family for four.
Not so for KidCare's other programs. Families who make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — $44,100 for a family of four — qualify for subsidized rates under programs called Healthy Kids, MediKids or Children's Medical Services.
With tough economic times forcing more people into that category, Jodi Ray and Melanie Hall, who lead the Florida Covering Kids and Families coalition, say interest in the program is coming from many directions.
"People who had big jobs, big homes, big cars are suddenly eligible," Ray said.
Ray said she's also hearing from companies that can no longer provide employees with health insurance. She's also seeing interest from people who can't afford their employer-sponsored plans.
Even families who make more than double the federal poverty level can buy coverage from KidCare at good rates. They pay $128 or $159 a month per child, depending on the child's age.
"Suddenly, something like Florida KidCare seems very important to a lot of these people who weren't paying attention before," Ray said.
Funds left unspent
Florida KidCare was established in 1998, a year after Congress passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for families who earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but not enough to purchase private insurance.
KidCare's programs, which operate like many private health insurance plans, include MediKids for children ages 1-4, Healthy Kids for children 5-18 and Children's Medical Services Network for kids from birth through 18 years with special health needs.
KidCare also oversees the long-standing Medicaid program for the poorest children.
Enrollment in the three newer programs grew quickly, reaching 100,000 in 1999, 200,000 in 2001 and 300,000 in 2003.
But in 2003, with legislators struggling to balance the budget, KidCare enrollment was frozen — and then declined. New laws required families to produce multiple documents to verify income. Rejoining the program after dropping out required a lengthy waiting period.
It may have sounded like a good idea to tighten requirements, but advocates say people who should have been covered were driven away by the bureaucratic hassles.
Enrollment fell to 185,000 by early 2006.
Increased outreach helped a little, but program funds went unspent for the last several years as enrollment targets were not reached.
In February, President Barack Obama announced an expansion of SCHIP, pumping more federal dollars into state programs such as Florida's. Florida now has enough money to cover subsidies for 257,000 children under KidCare. Even more children whose parents can afford to pay the full KidCare rates can also be covered.
And the bill Crist just signed cleared some of the hurdles that have kept families out, by shortening waiting periods and streamlining the income verification process.
KidCare officials are hopeful the recent changes will get more families into the program.
"With the foreclosure rates going up, job layoffs rates going up, we can tell families here's one thing you don't have to worry about," Ray said. "Your kid can get health care."
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.