Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade School Board to vote on hosting Obamacare events

Applicants wait to sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act outside Sunshine Life & Health Advisors at the Mall of the Americas last month.
Applicants wait to sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act outside Sunshine Life & Health Advisors at the Mall of the Americas last month. Miami Herald Staff

The Miami-Dade School Board will vote Wednesday on a proposal to raise awareness about the Affordable Care Act and host events in local schools where parents can sign up for health insurance.

A proposal filed on Jan. 7 by board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall authorizes Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to “disseminate detailed information” about the law popularly known as Obamacare and organize enrollment events for parents and other residents at schools in each of the county’s nine districts.

Bendross-Mindingall represents a district with a large African-American population that covers Liberty City and other low-income areas, as well as wealthier enclaves like Miami Shores.

Enrollment among minorities lagged in Florida last year and national data suggest the numbers haven’t improved during the law’s second enrollment period, which started Nov. 15 and runs to Feb.15.

Holding Obamacare events on state or county property has been controversial in the past. In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott announced that federally certified “navigators,” specialists who help consumers sign up for coverage, would be banned from setting foot in buildings owned by the state health department.

Scott said he was concerned that navigators would enter consumer information into a federal database. “Floridians should not have to exchange their privacy for insurance,” Scott wrote at the time in a letter to top congressional leaders.

County commissioners in Miami-Dade and Broward both voted to defy Scott’s order.

John Tupps, a spokesman for the governor, said the state would not try to block the Miami-Dade school proposal. “This is a local issue for the School Board, and we hope they do their due diligence to ensure privacy is protected,” Tupps said.

The state Department of Education is not aware of any ban on navigators in public schools, spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

Bendross-Mindingall said she wants families in her district to know they have access to health insurance.

“When parents wake up sick, their children suffer,” Bendross-Mindingall said. “Maybe they’re having to stay home from school and take care of their parent. Maybe they won’t have food that day and will get sick themselves.”

Bendross-Mindingall said that the enrollment events will double as health fairs where people can have blood pressure tests and other screenings performed.

She also plans to take advantage of the district’s ability to contact parents through phone calls and emails.

Miami-Dade’s public education system operates 466 schools and serves more than 355,000 students, making it the largest in Florida and fourth-largest in the nation.

“The potential for a trusted messenger like the school system to get the word out to parents is enormous,” said Nicholas Duran, state director for Enroll America, a nonprofit that advocates for people to sign up for coverage under the health law.

Enroll America will help the school board plan events and get the word out if the proposal passes. Duran said many low-income people don’t know that they may qualify for federal financial aid to help pay their premiums.

More than 670,000 Floridians have signed up for Obamacare, the most of any state, according to federal data released in December. Ninety-four percent of them will receive a subsidy, the feds say.

In Jacksonville, city and county officials are engaged in a similar partnership with Enroll America.

Duval County public schools are using their reach to help enroll both children and parents in healthcare plans, said Cheryl Townsend, campaign director for Cover Jacksonville, a city program that seeks to reduce the number of uninsured children in Duval County.

“We’re hosting unified enrollment events at a local mall with one section for Medicaid where children can sign up for KidCare and one section for the Affordable Care Act where the parents can sign up,” Townsend said.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of public schools for Duval County, is a fan of the initiative.

“Most parents who are uninsured are not aware of the options available to them,” Vitti said. “Because we have access to children and their parents every day, we see this as a massive opportunity.”

“It’s a win for the school, the teachers and the greater community if our children and parents are healthy,” he said.

Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.