Rep. Bobby Dubose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, was one of five legislators who wrote to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Agency of Health Care Administration on Friday asking them to waive the monthly KidCare premium for families who are financially stressed from Hurricane Irma.
They argued that because there is an estimated 185,000 low-income kids who get the state-subsidized insurance in 48 counties under the federal disaster declaration, and because more than 9,000 of them dropped out of the program in October because of non-payment -- more than twice the monthly average -- the impact of the hurricane is exacerbating the decline in coverage.
Democrats want the state to seek a federal waiver to allow Florida taxpayers to cover the $20 in premiums for the months of October and November for the families on state-subsidized insurance in the hurricane-affected counties. The cost to the state is estimated at $240,000. Federal funds would cover the rest, an estimated $6.1 million.
But their request was met with silence from both the governor and state agency.
So on Tuesday, Dubose put the agency's deputy secretary Beth Kidder on the spot before the full House Committee on Health and Human Services.
"I've been trying to get an answer -- right up until before this committee meeting,'' Dubose asked Kidder, who serves on the Florida Healthy Kids board,which oversees KidCare.
"Will you be voting on this or calling for the vote and basically tell me your position regarding my request?"
Kidder for the first time confirmed that the issue would come before the board at its Thursday meeting -- at the request of AHCA Secretary Justin Senior -- but she would not offer her opinion on whether or not she supports the request.
"I'm a board member. I'll listen to the debate and make my vote accordingly,'' she told Dubose.
If the agency has any interest in pursuing the waiver, they won't say.
For the past month, children's advocates have urged the state-run KidCare health insurance program to seek a waiver, as Texas did after Hurricane Harvey, to help families that lost homes or faced financial losses in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
But rather than seek the waiver, Florida officials have instead offered to extend the deadline for October and November payments until Oct. 31. In the face of the deadline extension, however, more than 4,000 families failed to make their payments in October.
Meeting with reporters after the meeting, Kidder said they will need "additional authority" to pursue the waiver because of the fiscal impact. She said that because "the vast majority of families" have paid their monthly premium, the question is: "would you refund those payments?"
"Do you then reward people who dragged their heels, didn't do it?'' she asked. "Thousands of families don't pay every month -- regardless of a storm or not. We can't distinguish which one of those who can't or won't pay that month, or drop it and seek other coverage, have other priorities...and those who have a storm impact."
She said one of the questions the Healthy Kids Board will ask is: "Why would you give a freebee to those who did not act responsibly in the beginning?"
Dubose said Kidder's response is part of a pattern -- a reluctance by state officials to help the state's neediest -- and an assumption that a helping hand for the most vulnerable is perceived as unfair.
"Here's what bothers me about all of this,'' he said. "We're talking about the most vulnerable population, low income folks."
When a storm hits, the average person may have some inconveniences" but when a family on fixed incomes loses power and groceries and has to spend any extra income on preparing or recovering from the storm, they struggle to recover,'' he said.
"For folks at or below the poverty line, it takes month for them to get stable,'' Dubose said. "We're talking about being fair and equitable, but things aren't necessarily fair within this situation."
Healthy Kids CEO Rebecca Matthews confirmed late Tuesday that more than 9,000 families dropped out of KidCare programs in the 48 counties in the month of October but "there is no way to know how many Florida KidCare families may have been directly impacted by Hurricane Irma,'' she said.
"New families enroll and others choose to leave the program each month for a variety of reasons (e.g., historical decline in enrollment during last quarter of the calendar year, parents move to employer coverage, move out of state, opt for private coverage, age out of the program, etc.)"
Photo: Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Deputy Secretary Beth Kidder.