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Invest in kids' health

Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican lawmakers keep missing opportunities to get Florida's low-income children the health insurance and basic care so many lack. Their recent rejection of a special session is only the latest example. Bush has since pledged to increase his proposed budget in this area, and that move is encouraging. But his proposal would do nothing to get children in working families the health care they need and deserve now.

Republican lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this week against holding a special session to fully fund Healthy Kids, the state-federal program that covers children in families too rich for Medicaid but too poor for private insurance. Their Democratic colleagues had pushed for the session only after the Republican-controlled Legislative Budget Commission recently failed to put up the money _ and after Bush's proposed budget, as originally outlined and released last week, fell far short. Democrats knew their quest was a long shot but had hoped at least to pin down their colleagues on the issue. Forty Republicans didn't bother to even register a vote.

That leaves Bush and lawmakers where they have been for months: sitting on millions of dollars that could be used immediately to wipe out existing waiting lists, while 74,000 nonimmigrant kids, plus the thousands more added each week, remain in harm's way. Florida could cover all those children immediately by spending $23-million, a small portion of the $400-million the feds handed Florida last year to offset rising health care costs. That modest state investment, in turn, would draw down an extra $54-million in federal funds. By failing to act, Republican leaders continue to ignore their own experts.

Bush says it would be unwise to use one-time-only money for this purpose, but not doing so is even riskier business. Every month the state delays, the waiting lists grow longer and, with them, the pain and price. No wonder even Bush's own task force on the uninsured, chaired by his lieutenant governor and chief financial officer, urged leaders not to delay in paring the waiting lists. The governor has also expressed concern that some of these families already have access to private insurance. That may be true _ except that such policies are usually priced so far out of reach, they might as well be pipe dreams.

Republican leaders' continuing failure to restore coverage, despite having the resources and advice to do so, is as costly as it is callous. Uninsured kids see doctors less frequently and miss more school days, while their parents miss more work. That leads to reduced productivity and larger bills when the child ends up in the emergency room, at taxpayers' expense. By footing only one quarter of the program's costs (the feds and parents pick up the rest), Florida could save taxpayers and families a far greater sum, in dollars and peace of mind.

Bush often touts that his administration has nearly doubled enrollment since 1999, and he deserves some credit for seeking to expand the funding pot next year. But this is no time to be resting on laurels _ not when the parents of 74,000 uninsured kids, frightened of what tomorrow may bring, can't rest at all.