Democrats fail to win session

Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 1:42 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida Democrats, hoping to cajole Republicans into providing subsidized health insurance for more than 100,000 children stuck on a state waiting list, saw their efforts fizzle out Tuesday.
Democrats fell far short of the number of votes they needed to force a special session to provide extra money for Florida KidCare, which has frozen its enrollment since last July.
The announcement that Democratic efforts failed came on the same day that Gov. Jeb Bush unveiled his own proposals to address Florida's growing ranks of uninsured. Florida has an estimated 2.8 million people without health insurance.
Under an obscure provision in Florida law, legislators can demand a special session if three-fifths of both the House and Senate agree. The vote, which was tallied by the Secretary of State's office, split mainly along partisan lines.
Only three Republicans - including Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales - supported holding a special session.
The Senate voted 23-16 against holding a special session, while the vote in the House was 40 against and 39 in favor. Forty-one House Republicans chose not to respond to the official poll request sent out by the Secretary of State's office.
Democrats immediately criticized their GOP colleagues for failing to act now to take care of those children whose families earn too much for Medicaid but are still eligible for other subsidized health insurance programs paid from state and federal dollars. Democrats contend it will take just $23 million in state money in order to take care of the waiting list until July.
"No child should ever be put on a waiting list," said Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, adding "What kind of family values statement is it for this Legislature and this governor to simply turn our backs on these families?"
But Republican legislators accused Democrats of pulling a political stunt meant to make GOP lawmakers look insensitive during an election year.
Nine GOP members from the House - including Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who represents part of Alachua County, sent identical form letters to Secretary of State Glenda Hood that said "calling for a special session is a desperate and transparent effort to score political points."
Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said Tuesday that he expects that lawmakers will look at trying to fund the waiting list for Florida KidCare when their regular session convenes in March.
"I've got nothing against the program, but there's no need to have taxpayers spending more money for a special session when we're coming into a regular session in 30 days," King said.
There are 1.6 million children covered by KidCare, but most of them are enrolled in Medicaid which is an entitlement program and can't be closed to eligible children. More than 300,000 children are enrolled in the remaining three KidCare programs - which are open to families that make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $36,800 for a family of four.
Republicans' stance Republicans have maintained that the freeze in KidCare was necessary because Florida has drawn down all the federal funding available for subsidized children's health insurance programs. Bush has proposed in his 2004 budget recommendations that lawmakers set aside an additional $30 million in order to take care of 10,500 children on the waiting list.
But Bush did say Tuesday that Florida is expected to receive a $130 million bonus from the federal government for children's health insurance. The money is coming from other states that did not spend their full allocations from Congress.
"Later this week we expect to get some good news for the other children on this wait list," Bush said. "We just learned about this funding and we are working with leadership and staff in the House and Senate to craft legislation to make the best use of this money to serve the most children for the longest period of time."
But Bush has said he wants to look closer at the ranks of those in KidCare to make sure that they are not children whose families could seek health insurance coverage elsewhere. Bush, who last year created a task force to look at health insurance, said that members heard stories of teachers dropping their own children from insurance offered by school districts and enrolling them in KidCare.
Bush did not give any specifics as to how he would achieve this - or whether the state should remove those already enrolled in KidCare. The current program requires children to be without insurance for six months before they can enroll.
Bush included possible changes to KidCare among a list of health insurance issues he wants state legislators to consider during the upcoming 2004 session. Bush also wants to set aside $2 million to start planning for the creation of a statewide patient electronic database that would allow doctors access to information about patients from around the state.
The database, if operational by 2006, would cut down on medical errors, Bush said. Providers and doctors would not be required to submit records to the database, but the state could financially reward those that do.
Bush also wants to pool small employers together to purchase health insurance and he wants to reopen a state-created insurance program for those with devastating illnesses. The governor, however, would force one-person businesses into this same pool in order to force down the cost to the state. A final estimate is not available but Bush recommended in his 2004 budget request that the state spend $30 million for this high-risk insurance pool.

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