Fifteen months after Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law making it easier for low-income families to get health insurance for their children, more people are doing just that.
Enrollment in the state's KidCare program has increased more than 15 percent since then. The increase is coming in all parts of KidCare; children's Medicaid, for the poorest families, now has more than 1.5 million enrollees. More than 255,000 are enrolled in the three levels of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program), geared for families with more income.
Officials say the law, which streamlined the application process, has played a key role. So has greater public outreach. But the poor economy is also a factor, with more people losing their jobs and their health benefits in the process.
There's enough money to enroll as many as 289,000 Florida children in the three SCHIP programs, and experts say the need is clear.
A recent report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, found that Florida was below average in the percentage of eligible kids — just 69.8 percent — enrolled in children's Medicaid or SCHIP.
"We still have quite a bit of work to do," said Jodi Ray of the Tampa-based Florida Covering Kids and Families Coalition, which works with local agencies across the state to enroll children.
The three SCHIP-funded programs are MediKids, for children ages 1 to 4; Healthy Kids, for ages 5 to 18; and Children's Medical Services Network, for children from birth to 18 with special health needs. The programs are for families who don't qualify for Medicaid, but can't afford private insurance.
A family of four would qualify for children's Medicaid if its total annual income was less than the federal poverty level, or $22,050. But a family of four could make up to $44,100 and still qualify for children's coverage at $15 or $20 a month, or make even more and pay higher premiums.
SCHIP enrollment has fluctuated since its creation in 1998. At its 2003 peak, more than 300,000 Florida children were enrolled. But that year, with legislators struggling to balance the budget, enrollment was frozen. New laws required families to produce multiple documents to verify income, and created a long waiting period for people who wanted to rejoin the program after dropping out. By 2006, enrollment had dropped to 185,000.
But in February 2009, President Barack Obama announced an expansion of the SCHIP program, which uses both federal and state funds. And a few months later the Florida Legislature passed a bill shortening the waiting period and streamlining income verification.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has issued a nationwide challenge to enroll 5 million more children into SCHIP and Medicaid programs.
Florida has heeded that call, says Rich Robleto, executive director for the Florida Healthy Kids Corp., which works with three state agencies to administer the KidCare programs.
"She asked us to cut the red tape, and Florida has cut the red tape, making it easier for families to apply," Robleto said.
The state also helped people sign up with a back-to-school campaign that included more than 200 events around the state.
Ray said efforts have been helped by a $1 million grant her coalition received last year. Recently, she gave a presentation at Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County, which expects to lose more than 6,000 jobs when the space shuttle program ends next year.
"It was almost like this look of relief that this was one less thing to worry about," Ray said. "That's a big population going into the uninsured pool."
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.