Democrats demand session on KidCare

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 12:32 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Democratic state lawmakers on Wednesday demanded that Florida act now to provide health insurance for more than 100,000 children who have been frozen out of the state's subsidized health plan.
Using a little-known provision in state law, Democrats hand-delivered 53 petitions to the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee that forces the state to ask all 160 legislators to hold a special session. If three-fifths of both the House and Senate agree, then the session must be scheduled within the next month.
"When we have so many children in need and there is a simple cost-effective solution, it is immoral not to do something about it," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.
With Republicans in firm control of the Florida Legislature, it appears unlikely that Democrats can win enough votes for a special session. But the gambit will force Republicans in an election year to say they oppose eliminating the waiting list as soon as possible.
It could prove a tough vote for South Florida Republicans since more than one-third of the 100,000 children on the waiting list for Florida KidCare come from Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, plans to hold a Tallahassee news conference today to demand that legislators act.
House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Miami, however, derided the demand for a special session as a "transparent election year stunt" and vowed that if lawmakers can receive added money from the federal government in the coming year they would start enrolling more children.
"Calling for a special session before we even know if any additional federal funds are available is nothing more than grandstanding," Rubio said.
Florida is one of 32 states that allow either the governor or Legislature to call special sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under state law, 20 percent, or 32 legislators, can petition the Secretary of State and ask for a poll on whether to hold a special session. This tactic has been used three times unsuccessfully before to force a special session. During the 36-day standoff over the presidential election in 2000 a handful of Republican legislators started gathering petitions calling for a special session to choose Florida's electors, but they failed to get enough signatures.
Secretary of State Glenda Hood must poll all legislators within the next seven days, and if there is enough support, a session must be scheduled within the next month.
Many rank and file Republicans said Wednesday that they saw no reason to hold a special session next month since the annual session is scheduled to start in March.
"We don't need a special session; the regular session is right around the corner," said Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral.
Democrats for months have been criticizing the enrollment cap that the Legislature placed on Florida KidCare last year. Since July, the numbers of those on the waiting list has been rising.
They have repeatedly called on Gov. Jeb Bush and Republicans to tap into nearly $1 billion in aid the state received last year from the federal government to wipe out the waiting list. Most of that money has yet to be spent. Democrats estimate it would cost $23 million to cover those children on the waiting list for the next six months.
Florida KidCare is the name given to four separate programs that provide subsidized health coverage to children. Most of the 1.6 million children in the program are covered under Medicaid, which is an entitlement program paid from a mix of state and federal dollars.
More than 300,000 children are enrolled in one of three remaining programs: Florida Healthy Kids, Children's Medical Services or Medikids. These programs are available to families who earn too much for Medicaid but whose income is no more than double that of the federal poverty level. That's $36,800 a year for a family of four. Families enrolled in these programs must pay a monthly premium.
Most KidCare money comes from the federal children's health insurance program pushed into law by former President Bill Clinton. Under Gov. Lawton Chiles, Florida began expanding Healthy Kids and other health-care programs by using money from the state's landmark $13 billion settlement with tobacco companies to draw down the federal aid. That expansion continued under Gov. Bush.
But on Tuesday, Bush unveiled his own budget recommendations for 2004 that would limit future enrollment in KidCare programs other than Medicaid to just 10,500 children on the waiting list.
Bush said lawmakers should take care of those most in dire need but that he did not want to enroll additional children because federal funding for the program could expire in 2007.
Bush's budget office also contends that Florida has drawn down all possible federal money available and that the state would be required to pay for all of the extra children.
"I'm proud of our record," Bush said. "And if there's more monies that come in, that would be something I know the Legislature would look at."
Democrats, however, said there's no reason to wait and that children need coverage as soon as possible. They contend that families without health insurance will take their children to emergency rooms for help and that this will result in higher costs passed on to those with insurance.
They also took aim at Bush's refusal to end the waiting list for KidCare while he is advocating a tax cut for investors who own more than $500,000 worth of stocks and bonds.
"It is unconscionable of the governor to reject fully funding the safety net for children that are uninsured, but to endorse a $91 million golden parachute for millionaires in this state," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.

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