Florida health officials and Attorney General Ashley Moody filed an appeal this week seeking to continue their remarkably cruel legal battle to make it easier for state regulators to boot kids off a health insurance program designed for low-income families who can otherwise fall through the cracks.

Florida leaders have gone to great pains to demonstrate their commitment to protecting children from allegedly prurient forces they seem to see just about everywhere — necessitating draconian book bans in schools and harsh budget cuts to arts and culture programs. Less a priority, it seems, is protecting their wellness. In fact, Florida, which has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the nation, seems to view with contempt its moral obligation to help needy children.

Earlier this year, Florida sued the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in an effort to block new federal guidance that prevents state officials from kicking kids off a children’s health insurance program — widely known as CHIP — if their families miss a premium payment during a protected 12-month coverage period. The reason for this rule is obvious: Programs like CHIP, designed for families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to otherwise afford coverage, are intended to help households that by definition are vulnerable to sudden and unforeseeable financial hardships, and thus extending them some flexibility and common decency is vital for the program’s real-world success.

” … if a family’s car breaks down and they miss a payment, their children cannot lose their health insurance for the rest of the 12-month” coverage period, Joan Alker, a professor and executive director of the Center for Children and Families at the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy, wrote about the federal rule.

Florida, it’s worth noting, doesn’t have to charge a premium at all. It’s simply chosen to do so. In court documents, the state said it collects about $30 million per year in CHIP premiums — a paltry sum for a state whose budget nears $117 billion — and dubiously claims that money “enables it to meet the balanced budget requirement of the Florida Constitution.” Yeah, right, OK.

In May, a federal judge threw out Florida’s motion for a preliminary injunction blocking the rule. This week, undeterred by the ruling and any shred of humanity, Moody and Florida health regulators filed notice they intended to appeal.

This isn’t an academic exercise for giddy textualists or a meaningful dispute over the nation’s constitutional order: It’s a sadistic game of gotcha.

The backdrop to this sorry court fight is the bleak reality that Florida has already kicked nearly 600,000 kids off government health insurance since federal COVID-19 era protections expired — a process somewhat ominously referred to as the “unwinding.” No surprise that, in this too, Florida stands out: Only Texas has punished a greater number of children for the sin of being born into poor families. Real lives are at stake.

Even when it’s purportedly being generous, Florida finds ways to needlessly inflict pain. Although the Legislature last year passed a bill expanding CHIP eligibility — which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed — the state slow-walked implementation, in contrast to a place like Arizona, which moved speedily, according to Alker, the Georgetown professor. Complicating that expansion is Florida’s desire to be exempt from the rule banning it from kicking kids off CHIP for non-payment.

“To state the obvious, it is not good news for children to be uninsured for any length of time exposing their families to large medical bills and leading to gaps in necessary primary and preventive care such as vaccines and wellness checks,” Alker wrote.

The state tends to breezily dismiss these kinds of concerns. Take another inexplicable development: Florida turned down millions of dollars from the federal government for a summer meals program for kids. Why? Well, the state has what it needs, a Department of Children and Families spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeffrey Schweers. Notably absent were any details to back up that remarkable claim.

“This was a missed opportunity for all Florida children who face food insecurity,” a coalition of dozens of churches, nonprofits and good-government groups wrote DeSantis about Florida’s refusal to take the summer-meals money. It’s an indefensible act, even in this benighted state.

For all their suspicion about the arts and the artists who make it, Florida’s elected leaders are performers at heart: They love to talk about protecting children. If only they’d actually do it.

Nate Monroe is a Florida columnist for the USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter @NateMonroeTU. Email him at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Florida punishing its most vulnerable children | Commentary

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