The state Legislature is trying to make Florida’s neediest jump more hurdles to get even modest government help

Waiting for help. photo.

About 14 percent of Floridians live in poverty. Many of those 2.9 million residents rely on government programs to help them meet daily needs like visiting a doctor, paying rent or buying gas.

But Florida has never been overly generous in helping the poor. In fact, critics call the state stingy when it comes to programs like Medicaid, which provides health care for the state’s poor and disabled residents.

Non-disabled adults without dependent children, no matter how poor, can’t qualify for Medicaid. Only five states make it harder than Florida for working parents to qualify, according to the Florida Policy Institute. If a family of three makes more than $7,038 a year, the parents won’t receive Medicaid support.

Despite the hardship that the neediest face, Florida is among just 14 states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. If the state did expand Medicaid, more than 700,000 poor Floridians could gain needed health coverage.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature resists expanding Medicaid to cover more needy residents year after year. And this year, state lawmakers are advancing proposals to make it even harder for Floridians to qualify for programs like Medicaid and a temporary cash-assistance program for the poor that only provides about $300 a month for a family of three. In hearing the proposals, one Democratic lawmaker asked: “How can a family with nothing be forced to meet these stringent requirements?”

–One proposed measure in the Legislature would impose a first-ever requirement that adults who receive Medicaid coverage work. It could impact more than 500,000 residents on that program, according to legislative analysts. A federal judge this week blocked similar programs in Kentucky and Arkansas.

–Another proposal would drastically increase the penalty for low-income Floridians who use a government program that provides temporary cash assistance that’s meant to help the needy through emergencies.  If they can’t prove, among other things, that they are working, they’d get punished by losing the several hundred dollars in government aid. First-time violators would lose their financial help for at least a month, up from the current 10-day penalty. The punishment for three-time violators would be six months without temporary cash assistance.

“I wish we would finally refocus on really assisting people instead of punishing them, while saying ‘Yeah we’re going to help you here, but we’re going to beat you up in the process,’” said Karen Woodall, head of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of low- and moderate-income Floridians.

Woodall is opposed to both the Medicaid work requirement and increasing the penalties for the state’s temporary cash-assistance program.

“It doesn’t work. And it doesn’t lift people out of poverty. And it doesn’t improve the economy. We have the wherewithal to do it. But we have to get our hearts and minds in the right place,” she said.

The measure to impose a  requirement (HB 955) that non-disabled Medicaid recipients work has cleared two House subcommittees. If passed, it would allow Florida to ask the federal Department of Health and Human Services for permission to impose a new work requirement.

The federal government has already approved similar Medicaid work requirement plans for eight states. But the move has sparked an ongoing federal court challenge.

If imposed in Florida, the work requirement would likely reduce the number of adults who are able to qualify  for Medicaid.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 1.4 million to 4 million Medicaid recipients would lose their coverage if the work requirement were approved nationwide.

In Arkansas, which requires Medicaid recipients to work at least 80 hours a month or engage in other qualifying activities, like school or training, more than 18,000 residents lost their coverage last year, according to a Kaiser report.

Rep. Daniel Perez, the Miami Republican sponsoring the legislation, noted that only non-disabled adults –  who make up about about 20 percent of the state’s Medicaid recipients –  would have to meet the work requirement.

“It really targets those able-bodied working adults,” he said.

Woodall and other critics say the problem with a Medicaid work requirement is that since Florida’s eligibility requirements are so strict for adults, it would jeopardize the coverage for many recipients.

“Maintaining eligibility is a high-wire act. Just a little overtime or a promotion with a slightly higher salary could make them ineligible, even when an employer doesn’t offer health insurance coverage,” said a recent Florida Policy Institute report on the state’s Medicaid program.

The bill (HB 959) that would increase penalties for Floridians who receive temporary cash assistance has been approved by one House subcommittee.

Compared to the overall Medicaid program, which provides coverage to nearly 4 million Floridians, the cash assistance program helped 9,732 low-income adults and 55,333 children in January, according to legislative analysts.

The cash payments are modest. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is just $303 a month.

While the proposed legislation increases penalties for people who need temporary cash payments, Rep. Ardian Zika, the Pasco County Republican sponsoring the bill, emphasized that the legislation would provide greater protections for children to receive  government aid if their parents ended up being disqualified. He said the legislation also increases state support for needy adults by helping them find jobs or develop skills.

Zika insists his bill is “a step in the right” direction in guiding Floridians from welfare support to a more prosperous life. He noted that he started his life in limited circumstances as an immigrant from Yugoslavia.

“I know what it means to be at the bottom. I also know what it means to climb the mountain,” said Zika, who is now a successful businessman.

But Democrats on the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee who opposed the bill questioned how cutting off financial assistance for months at a time for low-income parents would not impact children under their care.

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he grew up as one of eight children with a single, divorced mother who relied on government help to survive.

“Food stamps. Welfare. Government cheese. Free lunch. Reduced lunch. Summer jobs. After-school jobs. You’re looking at it…. We had nothing next to nothing,” he said. “How can a family with nothing be forced to meet these stringent requirements?”

Zika’s bill has two more committee stops before it can reach the House floor. A Senate bill (SB 1634), sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Marion County Republican, has yet to be heard.



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