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Lawmakers propose extending subsidized health care coverage to immigrant children

TALLAHASSEE — Since moving to Central Florida three years ago, Severiana Novas-Francois has been unable to bring her daughters to the doctor.

The reason: Children born outside of the United States must wait five years before they can qualify for the subsidized health insurance known as Florida KidCare.

Novas-Francois' children were born in the Dominican Republic, her home country. "I'm a legal resident of the United States (and) my kids (are), also," she said. "We applied a couple of times for KidCare. They denied us."

This year, state lawmakers will consider opening the KidCare program to families like hers — legal residents with uninsured children — by eliminating the five-year waiting period.

The proposal, by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, would help about 26,000 children in Florida, according to estimates from the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

"This bill is going to help a lot of kids that deserve and need health care get it at a good cost," Diaz said.

It would apply only to children who are in the United States legally. Under federal law, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid or state children's health insurance programs.

Florida KidCare provides subsidized coverage to children from low-income families. The program is backed by state and federal funds.

The five-year waiting period was once a federal requirement. But in 2009, the federal government gave states the option to provide immediate coverage to lawfully residing immigrant children.

So far, 26 states and the District of Columbia have eliminated the waiting period, Diaz said.

The proposal in Florida has the support of the Children's Trust, the United Way of Florida, the consumer health advocacy group Florida CHAIN and the Florida Hospital Association.

"It should be unacceptable to all of us that any child in Florida is without health insurance," said Vance Aloupis, statewide director of the Children's Movement of Florida, which is also supporting the proposal.

The bill may benefit from a wave of Republican support for pro-immigrant legislation in advance of the 2014 elections. But its passage is far from certain.

One potential roadblock: the cost.

The change would cost about $69 million, $27.5 million of which would be shouldered by the state, according to AHCA estimates.

"When word gets out that the revenue picture is better, there are a lot of folks who come with projects and programs that seem to be worthwhile," said Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, a member of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. "But when it comes down to it, we have to establish priorities."

Garcia, the Senate sponsor, said the proposal could yield some savings.

"If we can get these children to see a doctor and get treatment early on, it would save the taxpayers millions of dollars in uncompensated care when they use the emergency rooms," he said.

Last week, the KidCare bill won the unanimous support of the House Health Innovation Subcommittee.

Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, called the measure "long overdue."

"One of the things I'm really happy to hear you say is that we want to keep people out of emergency rooms," Gibbons told Diaz. "That's a critical part of health care, and this is the first step in the right direction."

Winning over the health care budget panel may be more of a hurdle.

"I understand that $20-some million is a lot of money," Diaz said. "That's a decision that the Legislature will need to make. But hopefully, they will see the (unanimous) vote in the last committee, and give this bill serious consideration."

Novas-Francois will watch the debate from her home in Sanford. If the bill fails, she will have to wait until her next trip to the Dominican Republic to bring her daughters to a pediatrician, she said.

"I want to get them checked out, make sure everything is okay," she said. "I hope I'll be able to do that in Florida."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Lawmakers propose extending subsidized health care coverage to immigrant children 02/16/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 16, 2014 9:56pm]
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