A bill that would extend low-cost KidCare health insurance coverage to the children of legal immigrants faces legislative roadblocks --- not the least of them the doubts of Senate President Don Gaetz.
"I’d vote against it," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Friday. "And I’m a strong supporter of KidCare. I’ve supported every expansion of KidCare. I’ve supported expansions of Kidcare that haven’t even happened. But I would have some hesitancy about this bill."
The proposal (HB 7 and SB 282) would eliminate a five-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrants to be eligible for KidCare, a subsidized insurance program that serves children from low- and moderate-income families. It's estimated that roughly 25,000 children could get coverage as a result.
"It’s important to remember that these children will eventually be eligible for coverage anyway," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy and a longtime KidCare advocate. "It’s just speeding up the coverage, rather than making them have to wait for five years, making them have to use emergency-room care, making them go to school sick."
The proposal by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, has gotten further this year than ever before.
On March 25, the Senate Health Policy Committee voted 7-2 to approve the measure, with Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voting no.
The House bill was unanimously approved by the House Health Innovation Subcommittee on Feb. 11.
This is the third year Garcia has sponsored the measure. Last year's version didn't get a Senate hearing after confusion by the Agency for Health Care Administration about whether the proposal covered undocumented immigrants as well as legal ones. The agency estimated the cost of last year’s measure at $500 million, which would have included all immigrants in Florida, and the inflated tab scared away potential supporters.
So Garcia spelled out in the bill this year that the measure only applies to a “lawfully residing child …who is lawfully present in the United States.”
"It's not about any illegals," Garcia said.
This year, AHCA’s estimates of the bill's cost to the state have ranged from roughly $19 million to $27.5 million --- which Woodall says are still too high.
But she acknowledged that the measure could be considered politically risky. Lawmakers also are grappling with a controversial proposal about approving in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrant students.
"I know that every legislator up there has been receiving negative calls about doing anything for anyone associated … with the term 'immigrant' from a rambunctious but small number of people," Woodall said.
Gaetz said he was unaware "that anyone has decided that the substance of the bill is bad," but doubts whether there’s enough time left for it to work its way through the committee process.
"Whether there are questions about the bill or not, the fact is, it hasn’t moved through the committees that it was referred to, senators haven’t had a chance to ask their questions, the public hasn’t had a chance to have public hearings and to testify in all the committees of reference --- and so therefore, it’s unlikely it’ll get to the floor," Gaetz said.
The Senate bill is up next in the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Sen. Denise Grimsley, voted for the measure in Health Policy. But Grimsley said she doesn’t have a budget allocation for the bill yet and hasn’t discussed it with Gaetz.
The House bill isn’t moving, either. House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, hasn’t placed it on the agenda, although it passed its previous committee nearly two months ago. Hudson did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
But House sponsor Diaz said he and Garcia haven’t given up.
"What we know is if this going to pass this year, it’s going to have to be worked out in the budget process," Diaz said. "It’s either going to come out through proviso language (fine print in the budget), or through a work plan amendment. We’re looking for any options."