Chiles Unveils Children's Health Plan

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- Tapping into Florida's $11.3 billion settlement

with the tobacco industry, Gov. Lawton Chiles unveiled a plan

yesterday to provide health insurance to nearly 300,000

uninsured children in Florida.

The plan, which likely will become a major issue during this

spring's legislative session, could help thousands of children

in Northeast Florida.

In Jacksonville, estimates of uninsured children range from

about 15,000 to 20,000 -- though it's unclear how many of those

children would qualify under Chiles' proposal. Many of the

children are in families where parents work low-wage jobs, said

Jeff Goldhagen, director of the Duval County Health Department.

"It is a major problem for the working poor and/or those people

who are working and don't have access to health-care benefits,"

said Goldhagen, who estimated the city's number of uninsured

children at 20,000.

Chiles, who has repeatedly pushed for child health-care

programs, called the $419 million plan a "historic opportunity."

The state would use about $103 million from the tobacco

settlement, with most of the rest of the money coming from the

federal government.

"For decades, Florida has lagged behind other states in caring

for our kids," Chiles said.

The proposal would expand the number of children eligible for

Medicaid, the government program that provides health services

to low-income families. At the same time, it would expand

Florida's Healthy Kids program, which works with private

insurers to offer insurance to working families.

Medicaid and Healthy Kids now serve about 800,000 children in

Florida. Even if Chiles' plan is put in place, however, an

estimated 500,000 children would remain uninsured, according to

the Governor's Office.

"This is a teensy step forward," said Budd Bell, a social

services lobbyist.

Chiles' plan could be a key issue during this year's

legislative session as lawmakers grapple with how to spend money

from the tobacco settlement. The settlement stemmed from a

lawsuit in which the state sought to recover money it has spent

treating smoking-related illnesses.

Sen. Bill Bankhead, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said he thinks

legislators will pass a plan to provide health care to more

uninsured children. But Bankhead, who is one of the Senate's top

experts on health and social-service issues, said he has

concerns about Chiles' proposal.

Among other things, Bankhead said he would like to see eligible

families be able to choose between private insurance companies,

creating more competition. …