Florida House Democrats are sounding the alarm about the number of children that have lost medical coverage as the state has resumed annual reviews of Medicaid eligibility, a process that was suspended during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
More than 520,000 Florida residents have been terminated from the program since April, new state data shows. Almost half of those — roughly 250,000 — are children. An analysis at county level produced by House Democrats shows that includes almost 36,000 children from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Under Florida’s published plan for resuming normal Medicaid operation, children who lose coverage should be automatically switched to alternatives like state health insurance programs if eligible.
But state data shows that is not happening in the majority of cases, with enrollment in Florida Healthy Kids rising by roughly 20,000 over the same period. The reports do not show if children were removed from Medicaid because they are now covered through their parents’ employer health insurance. That’s despite the state making more children eligible for the program this year.
House Democrats’ report was released the same week that Gov. Ron DeSantis faced questions during Wednesday’s second GOP presidential debate about why Florida’s uninsurance rate is higher than the national average. Some 7.3% of Florida children were uninsured in 2021, ranking the state in the bottom 10 nationally, a study by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families found. The national rate is 5.4%.
House Democrats said in a news release that low-income families in every community are being impacted and that the state should pause the process and provide more help for families losing health insurance.
They are also questioning why the state has not used $3.3 million that lawmakers set aside in the state budget to increase the capacity at call centers set up to help families. Florida’s call center was among the worst-performing in the nation, with wait times averaging 32 minutes in May, when 38% of callers gave up waiting for an answer, according to state data. That led the federal government in August to send a letter to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration warning that the state may not be in compliance with federal guidelines.
“We should be doing everything possible to ensure Floridians have the freedom to be healthy, prosperous, and safe,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, in a news release. “Unfortunately, the DeSantis policy of ‘if it ain’t woke don’t fix it’ is leaving hundreds of thousands of Florida’s children without health care coverage while he focuses on his own ambitions.”
Florida Department of Children and Families officials said they have invested in call center staffing and created a dedicated helpline for Medicaid. Wait times are less than five minutes and the state has 2,700 staff reviewing cases two times faster than the federal standard, said spokesperson Mallory McManus.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Parents whose children were deemed ineligible for Medicaid are given information about other low-cost options, including Florida Healthy Kids.
“Many Floridians’ circumstances have improved since the pause of redeterminations and with an unemployment rate of 2.7%, it should be expected that families in a stronger financial situation would no longer be eligible,” McManus said in an email.
Florida’s Medicaid rolls swelled by 1.7 million people during the pandemic, when the federal government gave states additional funding to keep people covered even if they were no longer eligible. With the public health emergency over, the Florida Department of Children and Families began reviewing the eligibility of roughly 5 million recipients in April, a process known as redetermination.
State Democrats are just the latest group to voice concerns about how the state is handling that transition.
In August, a coalition of 13 state and national groups filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights accusing Florida of illegal discrimination against families and children who are Latino, African American or immigrants. The complaint cites research by UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization, which during tests of Florida’s call center found that Spanish-language calls averaged a wait time of more than two hours, more than four times as long as those in English.
Roughly 30% of Spanish-language calls were disconnected before the caller reached a human being compared to 10% for calls in English, the test found.
In a lawsuit filed the same month in federal court in the Middle District of Florida, the Florida Health Justice Project and the National Health Law Program contend that the notices the state is sending to Medicaid recipients informing them they are no longer eligible are confusing and do not adequately explain how they can challenge the state’s decision.
The Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, the Florida Health Justice Project and the Florida Policy Institute are among health care advocacy groups that have questioned why Florida is the only state in the nation that has not taken advantage of waivers and provisions made available by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help reduce the disenrollment of eligible children and families.
Florida could eventually see close to 1 million residents lose coverage, according to estimates. That’s in part because it’s one of only 10 states that have not raised Medicaid eligibility to cover more families who earn less than the federal poverty level.
Several GOP-led states, including South Dakota and Wyoming, have taken steps to expand their Medicaid program in recent years, the latest being North Carolina, where leaders this week announced that expansion will take effect there from Dec. 1.
Health advocacy groups would like to see Florida follow suit.
“We call on the state, the Legislature, and the DeSantis Administration to immediately enact available reforms to stop the tidal wave of coverage loss for kids,” said Sadaf Knight, CEO of the Florida Policy Institute.