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Why Florida's Immigrant Children Must Wait Five Years For Health Care

Courtesy of Severiana Novas-Francois

In Florida, children who were born outside the United States -- and live here lawfully -- have to wait five years to qualify for the subsidized health care program known as Florida KidCare.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, are sponsoring legislation to drop the five-year waiting period.

The law made its third trip to the legislature this year, and will get its first hearing in the Senate committee Tuesday.

Severiana Novas-Francois went to Tallahassee recently to urge lawmakers to pass this bill. In 2011, she and her three daughters came to the United States legally from the Dominican Republic.

She said she’s thankful for all the opportunities the U.S. has to offer, but she couldn’t believe her kids weren’t eligible for Florida KidCare.

“Even in my country, there aren’t many opportunities for people,” Novas-Francois says. “But at least you can have health care.”

This waiting period used to be a federal requirement. It was a part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1997. The idea was to encourage immigrants to work hard and earn their access to government assistance programs.

Diana Ragbeer is the director of public policy for The Children’s Trust, a children’s advocacy group that is supporting the bill.

“Then you would be able to afford to buy certain things including your health insurance,” Ragbeer says.

According to Ragbeer, it later became clear that when it comes to health care, it’s cheaper for states to pay for preventative care than it is to treat illnesses.

Then in 2009, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart changed some language in the federal law that would allow states to choose whether to drop the waiting period. Since then, 29 states have dropped the waiting period.

Last year, some broad language in the legislation suggested that the measure would cover undocumented immigrants as well.

Because of that confusion, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration estimated that waiving the waiting period would cost the state $500 million. But this year, Ragbeer said the bill is clear about it covering only legally residing immigrant children.

With the clear language in the bill, the state now estimates it would only have to pay $20 million and about $49 million in matching federal funds.

“Now in two places in the bill it is very clearly expressed that nothing in the legislation would cover undocumented children,” Ragbeer says. “So that adds comfort to some members of the legislature who are concerned about that.”

The AHCA estimates that this bill would cover about 26,000 children.

Credit Julia Duba
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (pictured), R-Miami, is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, to drop the five-year waiting period for lawfully-residing immigrant children in Florida during this year's Legislative session.

Diaz has high hopes that the bill will pass this year. “I do think they have a better-than-average change of passing this legislation and helping these kids this year,” says Diaz.

As Novas-Francois waits to see what happens with the bill, she says she hopes her children stay healthy.

“You keep fingers crossed all the time, hoping your children don’t get sick,” Novas-Francois says. “It’s hard.”

She’s considering taking her three daughters to get a checkup with doctors in the Dominican Republic when she visits this summer.

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