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
"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
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. …