TALLAHASSEE _ A bill to extend health coverage to the children of legal immigrants will return in the 2013 legislative session – with the difference that this year, it will have a sponsor in the House.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, plans to bring back a version of last year's proposal (SB 1294 of 2012), said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, who plans to carry the House companion.
Last year, backers couldn't find a House sponsor for the proposal to subsidize the health care of children who are in the country legally – but haven't been here long enough to qualify for the benefit.
"I think it's important to give adequate health care for kids," Diaz said. "These are kids that have every right to be in this country, and they're entitled to it."
Florida continues to rank at the bottom of the 50 states in covering children's health – 48th in the percentage of uninsured children, with 11.9 percent statewide compared to a national average of 7.5 percent.
The state ranks 49th in the number of uninsured children with 475,112. In 2011, about 579,000 children statewide were uninsured, including 358,000 low-income children who were qualified for coverage.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill extending eligibility in KidCare to the children of most state workers – something that previously wasn't paid for. The KidCare subsidized insurance program for children is paid for jointly by federal and state governments.
This year, if Garcia's measure passes, the state would add 20,550 legal immigrant children to the KidCare rolls.
Hispanic children comprise 40 percent of the nation's uninsured children, although they account for 24 percent of the general population.
Immigration status has always been a factor in determining children's eligibility for subsidized coverage – Medicaid or the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP.
Before 2009, the federal welfare reform law prevented most legal immigrant children from enrolling during their first five years in the U.S. When CHIP was reauthorized in 2009, however, states were given the option of extending eligibility.
Twenty-one states have eliminated the waiting period.
There are different estimates of what the change would cost.
A 2012 study by Kidswell Florida, which favors expanded coverage, estimated the tab at $17.1 million while drawing down $40.9 million in federal matching funds.
Legislative staff last year put the fiscal impact at right around $52 million.
Diaz said he's convinced the state will prevent larger expenses on the back end – like hospital emergency room visits – by insuring more children.
"I like to think the state would save money, or I wouldn't propose the bill," he said. "I think the state pays too much on the back end."
Children's health advocates say taking a strategic approach to insuring more children is paying off.
"It's not all policy and administration," said Nick Duran of the Children's Movement of Florida. "You really need outreach."
KidCare had an outreach program until 2003, when the Legislature eliminated it. Now the outreach is done by schools, and by groups like Florida Covering Kids and Families at the University of South Florida.
According to that project's director, Jodi Ray, the group is training volunteers to help families enroll, with outreach to the Hispanic and Haitian communities a priority. They've found they must use different approaches depending on whether the communities are urban or rural, what their culture and literacy levels are, and so forth.
"There's not a one-size-fits-all to outreach," Ray said.
The Garcia-Diaz bill would complement outreach efforts by aligning state policy with the reauthorized federal program, which in turn makes more federal funding available.
"I'm excited," Duran said. "We started looking for a House sponsor as soon as session ended last year. I think this year it's a different story."