JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Kimberly Way gave birth to her son Caleb, she found out he had a rare genetic disorder.
"We thought he was not going to make it," she said. "I am very grateful a caseworker helped us enroll Caleb in Children's Medical Services,” part of the KidCare program.
KidCare is Florida’s version of the federally funded Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which matches state dollars to provide health coverage to kids in low-income families. Through the program, children through the age of 18 may be eligible for low-cost or free health insurance.
But the KidCare program, which covers about 2 million children in Florida, including Caleb, faces a potential threat this year: federal funding for the program is due to expire in September.
“There are about 400,000 uninsured children in Florida who will likely be affected by this policy,” said Aldiana Brezanin, an organizer with the health advocacy organization Florida CHAIN.
Because of the size of Florida and the structure of its health care program, studies show it will be one of the most impacted states in the country, if Congress does not take action. Estimates suggest that Florida would lose more or less $500 million in federal funds annually.
Yet state officials, like Rep. Mia Jones (D-Jacksonville), are optimistic that funding for the KidCare program will be renewed.
“We will make sure that Congress will act on this,” Jones said at a roundtable last week with ethnic media and community leaders.
The briefing was organized by New America Media in partnership with the advocacy and leadership organization National League of Cities, and Cover Jacksonville, a campaign to connect children and families with affordable health insurance.
Lack of awareness
The bigger challenge, according to advocates, is getting families enrolled in affordable health coverage in the first place. Over 17,000 children in the Jacksonville area alone are uninsured. Many of them are eligible for KidCare but aren’t taking advantage of it.
Way, for example, was not aware of the KidCare program. "I didn't know anything about it before. I was just told by people at the hospital."
Way lost her job and her employer-based health insurance while she was pregnant. The family quickly accumulated over $30,000 in medical bills -- and Caleb was going to need continuous treatment.
“Life came to a point where [I was asking], ‘Do I pay for our [health] insurance or pay for our food?’” Way says.
Her son has a condition known as trisomy 13, a chromosomal abnormality that causes a number of physical problems, which in Caleb’s case has included damage to his bones, hearing and eyesight. Now 16 months old, he needs extensive ongoing care and at least three hospital visits per month.
Many qualified families pay less than $20 a month for a child to be enrolled in the KidCare program, depending on their household income. But most families, including Way’s, pay nothing at all.
“It’s truly been a great help for us,” she says.
For help with enrollment, dial 2-1-1
Hoping to increase the number of enrollees in KidCare this year, Jones urged community leaders to make parents aware of the program and of United Way’s 211 call center, which parents can call with questions about enrolling their kids or to schedule an appointment to enroll.
Advocates say that many children in Jacksonville are not signed up for the KidCare program because parents don’t know it exists.
“We’re trying to be as creative as we can to get the word out and to make sure families are aware of these services,” Jones said.
Some kids still left out due to immigration status
In Florida, according to Sandy Beaumont, the community partnerships liaison for the state’s Department of Children and Families, children must either be U.S. citizens or “qualified non-U.S. citizens” in order to qualify for KidCare. Kids who aren’t citizens only qualify if they are legal permanent residents.
Additionally, Beaumont says, “they [legal permanent residents] must be residing in the country five years or more.”
Historically, the five-year waiting period was a federal requirement. But in 2009, the federal government gave each state the option of providing coverage to lawfully residing immigrant children regardless of their years of residency.
To date, 26 states and the District of Columbia have lifted the five-year ban. But not Florida.
Some Florida lawmakers, including Sen. Rene Garcia and State Representative Jose Felix Diaz, have proposed legislation to extend the KidCare program to more immigrant children by eliminating the five-year waiting period. If passed, about 26,000 more children in the state would be eligible for the program.
Additional barriers in the Hispanic community
In Hispanic families, according to KidCare enrollment assister Flavio Chavez, there are barriers to enrolling in coverage that go beyond the immigration status of the child.
First, he says, some families are afraid of accessing coverage even if their children are lawful residents. And when parents are undocumented, they fear they may have to expose their immigration status in the process of enrolling their children.
“The language barrier is another thing,” Chavez said. “And, of course, they assume they are not qualified [for the KidCare program] because of their lack of knowledge.”
For Kimberly Way, not having access to coverage would have been devastating.
“I cannot imagine what [life] would be like without this particular program,” she said. “I don’t even know where to start.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of children's health care issues supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.