With 4,000 families possibly losing health insurance after Irma, state may ask for help

Reina Lobo holds her grandson, Julio, in this 2014 photo. The family met with Nadine Gousse, of the Human Services Coalition, a group working to enroll low-income Hispanic children in Florida KidCare.
Reina Lobo holds her grandson, Julio, in this 2014 photo. The family met with Nadine Gousse, of the Human Services Coalition, a group working to enroll low-income Hispanic children in Florida KidCare. eflor@elnuevoherald.com

With more than 4,000 families facing the loss of their state-subidized KidCare health insurance in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Florida regulators have reversed course and now say they are prepared to seek federal help.

Florida Healthy Kids, the agency that operates the KidCare insurance program, told the Herald/Times Friday that it will call a special board meeting next week to explore asking the federal government for a waiver to help families still financially stressed from the hurricane.

The proposal would allow taxpayers to cover the premiums for low-income families who have lost jobs and homes or are facing other financial hardships because of Hurricane Irma. The cost to Florida: an estimated $240,000. The cost to the federal government: about $6.2 million. The state of Texas successfully sought a similar waiver after Hurricane Harvey.

“We will not allow ANY family to lose their insurance coverage due to Hurricane Irma,’’ wrote Mallory McManus, a spokesperson for the state Agency for Healthcare Administration, which oversees the program, in a statement late Friday.

“We have requested that Florida Healthy Kids notice a board meeting next week to explore waiving premiums. This is not a decision for AHCA to make, but is something that the Florida Healthy Kids board will need to vote on and approve.”

The decision is an about-face for Gov. Rick Scott and KidCare officials who, for the past two weeks, have resisted requests from child health advocates and Democratic lawmakers urging them to seek the waiver that would allow the state to cover less than 4 percent of the estimated $6.4 million cost of the monthly premiums for two months. If approved, federal disaster funds would pick up 96.25 percent of that cost.

Related: State tells parents to ‘pay up’ or lose kids’ insurance if Irma caused missed payment

But Scott and others resisted their calls, preferring instead to extend the deadline to Oct. 31 for families to pay up before they are removed from the program. The waiver, if enacted, would affect those living in the 48 counties affected by Irma.

The announcement to seek the waiver came just hours after Florida House Democrats on Friday joined healthcare advocates, the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and sent a letter to Scott and AHCA Secretary Justin Senior.

“Surely, it is within the state’s power and resources to spend $240,000 in state funds in order to provide these families financial relief and the peace of mind that their child’s health insurance is secure as they recover from the storm’s aftermath,’’ wrote Democratic Reps. Amy Mercado, Janet Cruz, Bobby DuBose, Kionne McGhee and David Richardson.

KidCare provides subsidized coverage for about 185,000 children ages 5-18 in the 48 disaster counties, and charges most families $15 to $20 a month, depending on their family size and income. Children are eligible for the subsidized coverage if their families have income between 133 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($32,328 and $48,600, respectively, for a family of four.)

In a memo from Healthy Kids CEO Rebecca Matthews, since Oct. 2, more than 6,300 families statewide have lost their children's KidCare coverage, including an estimated 4,000 in the 48 counties covered under the federal disaster declaration. AHCA said it doesn’t know how many of those families have lost jobs or homes because of Hurricane Irma.

That is the single largest monthly drop in enrollment in two years. The program has seen an average monthly net enrollment increase of 914 children since October 2015. It’s also a sign that the state effort to extend the deadline to help families impacted by Hurricane Irma was not working.

“It would seem hardly coincidental that such a significant deviation in KidCare enrollment occurring during the same month as Hurricane Irma is merely happenstance,’’ wrote five Democratic legislators in a letter to the governor on Friday. “Clearly, the storm has affected the ability of thousands of Florida children to access healthcare.”

Families pay one month in advance for coverage the next month. The Florida Healthy Kids website tells families they must apply to have the deadline for their payment extended. “To ensure continuous coverage for your child, we encourage you to make your payment as soon as possible. Please also remember to pay your October premium for November coverage by October 31, 2017.”

McManus said since the first week of October, “Florida Healthy Kids began reaching out to families by telephone, text, email, and letter” and they were able to give the families of 1,175 children a deadline extension.

Karen Woodall, an advocate for low-income families at the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said the state “has spent more time finding ways to not ask for a waiver than to make it work.” She said that the state can give people who have already paid their premiums in October a credit on their December statement.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Lakes, met with Senior last week and warned that there will be a price to removing families from insurance.

“If they decide to go to the emergency room because they can’t see a doctor, that gets covered by taxpayer money,’’ he said. “In their attempt to be frugal, they may cost us much more.”

There is precedent for the waiver. After Hurricane Harvey, Texas officials asked the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to approve the state’s request to waive the co-pays and enrollment fees for its KidCare-style program, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The federal agency agreed to let CHIP clients who live in a county included in the federal disaster declaration to have their fees waived through November 2017.

In 2005, former Gov. Jeb Bush waived Florida’s KidCare fees after the state was hit by four hurricanes.