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State cash windfall aimed at children's health initiatives

Florida's tobacco settlement, plus federal welfare changes, will mean lots of money to boost children's health next year.

Now, as officials hash out how to spend it, some lawmakers want to ensure minorities are not left behind.

Under its "Children First" proposal announced Monday, the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators wants to revamp the way poor children get health insurance, so more than 800,000 kids without coverage can easily get it.

In addition, the group said, $200-million in tobacco money tagged for educational programs should be targeted at black and Hispanic communities, which conference leaders say have been targeted by tobacco companies' marketing efforts.

"There's been sensitivity to the issue," said state Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, D-Miami, chairwoman of the conference. "But after this proposal there will be more sensitivity."

The money boon is coming from two sources: the state's $11-billion tobacco settlement and the federal 1997 balanced budget agreement.

The budget deal revamped children's welfare, sending about $1.3-billion to Florida over the next five years for covering poor children. Next year's total, which must be matched by about $121-million in state money, comes to about $270-million.

The "Children First" plan is one of several ideas that legislators will consider as they figure out how to spend the money. Lawmakers are likely to hear from a wide array of groups with different plans, some more radical than others.

State Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, said the plan would fill huge gaps in existing coverage by making coverage more accessible. Coverage also would be more comprehensive, she said, reaching children in all families -- minority and white -- that earn up to twice the poverty level. (For a family of four, the poverty level is about $16,000 a year.)

Currently, about 55,000 teens ages 15 to 19 lack insurance but are eligible for Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor. Many don't know how to apply for help, and others want to avoid the stigma.

The plan also would aim for preventive care, specifically targeting conditions that are increasing among youth, such as diabetes and asthma.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles said Monday he agreed with the principles of "Children First," but was not sure about the plan's specifics.