Advocates seek more funding, access to healthcare and early education for kids

Reina Lobo, 40, holds her grandson Julio, 3, while listening to Nadine Grousse, of the Human Services Coalition, explain Florida KidCare health insurance program.
Reina Lobo, 40, holds her grandson Julio, 3, while listening to Nadine Grousse, of the Human Services Coalition, explain Florida KidCare health insurance program. El Nuevo Herald

Florida’s smallest and poorest residents — kids who need access to healthcare and early education — often struggle to get the attention of the Florida Legislature.

Meanwhile, the parents of 26,000 children in the state are waiting for help to pay for health insurance. And funding for the state’s free preschool program — called voluntary pre-kindergarten, or VPK — is running at the lowest level ever.

An advocacy group called The Children’s Movement of Florida is working to raise the profile of an often-overlooked constituency this year. The group is pushing legislators to end a five-year waiting period until legal, immigrant children qualify for state-subsidized healthcare, and asking for more money for early education programs.

“What we’re trying to do is change the priorities of how decisions are made, and trying to make sure that what is funded is of high-quality,” said David Lawrence Jr., chair of the Children’s Movement and a former Miami Herald publisher.

The outlook in Tallahassee, however, is mixed.

Bills have been filed in both chambers to give more kids access to Florida KidCare, the state’s subsidized health insurance program. Federal law once required the wait time. Getting rid of it would help about 26,000 children across the state, according to an analysis last year by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Children who don’t have legal immigration status don’t qualify for the program.

Similar legislation failed in 2014 because of the huge price tag attached to it: an estimated $69 million, according to a state analysis. That figure was revised downward this year to $4.8 million.

Sen. René García, a Hialeah Republican who filed this year’s bill, said the previous figures included costs for covering undocumented children, too.

This year, bills are stalled in the House and Senate because there is tremendous uncertainty over the healthcare budget. Leaders in the House say they are hesitant to move forward on the KidCare bill because there is a chance Florida may lose a $2.2 billion federal-state program that helps safety-net hospitals.

But Garcia has said that even if the bills don’t move forward, he will try to get funding included in the state budget.

“It’s the right thing to do, to make sure we take care of these kids,” he said. “Why do they have to wait five years when they’re here legally?”

As for VPK, the House is proposing a budget that keeps the overall funding the same as last year, despite a projected dip in enrollment. But the Senate is proposing a decrease to the program.

At about $2,200 per child last year, funding for VPK was at its lowest level since the program debuted in 2005, according to figures from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Florida’s Office of Early Learning said the current figure is closer to $2,400. Still, funding per child is well below the national average of more than $4,000.

Child care can be a family’s biggest cost. In Florida, the Office of Early Learning estimates that a poor family with two young children will spend about 50 percent of their income on child care. A report by Child Care Aware of America, a resource and referral agency, found that in some states, preschool can cost parents more than tuition at a public college.

Even still, about 55,000 families are waiting for state subsidies to pay for child care.

“We need to find out how we can be more proactive in education,” said Vance Aloupis, state director of The Children’s Movement. “It’s in the state’s best interest.”

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