Facing intense political pressure from Democrats, Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday said he will ask lawmakers for $30-million to reduce a massive waiting list for a popular children's health insurance program.
The announcement came one week after Bush released his state budget proposal that he said would reduce the 100,000-child waiting list by only 10,500.
Because Bush wants to spend the additional $30-million over three years instead of one, he said he didn't know how many more children could be moved into the program.
Bush said politics played no role in his decision to seek more money. He said he waited to make the request until he determined how much extra federal money Florida could expect this year for the Healthy Kids program.
"There have been plenty of Republicans clamoring for this, too," Bush said.
The issue has gathered steam in the past week as Democratic lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to force a special session on the issue. While heartened by Bush's decision to add $30-million to the program and draw as much as $132-million in federal funds, state Democrats demanded Wednesday that Bush not wait for the legislative session that begins March 2.
Democratic lawmakers and children's advocates held news conferences around the state calling on Bush to convene a special session next week, when lawmakers will be at the Capitol anyway for committee meetings.
"Ear aches won't wait. Tonsillitis won't wait," state Rep. Sheri McInvale, D-Orlando, said in Ocoee.
"I think it was very embarrassing for our governor and the Republican leadership for not prioritizing it in the budget," state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said in Ocoee.
It's unclear how the money will immediately affect the waiting list. Rather than spend all the money this year, Bush wants to dole it out through 2007, when Congress is scheduled to reenact the Healthy Kids program. Bush said he doesn't want to risk adding families to the program only to see funding drop.
"What kind of message does it send to families who are on the insurance when we say, "We don't have any more money,' " Bush said.
Meanwhile, Bush said he will move forward with plans to remove families from the program who have access to private insurance, such as through an employer. About one-third of families in Healthy Kids have access to private coverage, but the insurance cost is about 9.5-percent of their family income, according to a University of Florida study.
Bush said the state-subsidized insurance program was intended specifically for families who do not have access to insurance.
"It makes no sense to take people who have access to insurance and put them ahead of children who have to access to insurance," Bush said.
Also Wednesday, Bush visited Tampa General Hospital to tout a proposal to give discounts to uninsured patients when they visit hospital emergency rooms. The proposal, made by the Florida Hospital Association, calls for enacting a law that would require discounts of at least 30 percent for families who are uninsured and don't have a way to pay.
The proposal calls for a discount of at least 30 percent for families who make at least 300 percent of the federal poverty line, don't have savings and aren't covered by Medicare or Medicaid. For a family of four, the level would be about $55,000.
Florida would be the first state to enact required discounts, said Ralph Glatfelter, senior vice president with the Florida Hospital Association.
He said the state's hospitals now write off about $1.5-billion in uninsured care each year. Hospitals now receive payment for about 7 to 8 percent of what they bill the uninsured, Glatfelter said.