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KidCare is an ‘Awkward Success Story’ for Crist

A successful state program that subsidizes health care for children is becoming an awkward success story for Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running against government involvement in health care as he seeks a U.S. Senate seat.

The KidCare program has been broadly trumpeted as a successful program that has reduced the number of uninsured children in Florida. Part of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program initiative, KidCare and several related programs have been supported on some level by former Gov. Jeb Bush, Crist and many – though not all - Republican lawmakers.

But as the national debate on health care hinges in part on what role the government should play in paying for health care, GOP supporters of some government health care programs – like KidCare, but also Medicare and the Veterans Hospitals – are finding themselves having to explain why they support government health care for some, but not others.

The issue seemed to trip Crist up a bit on at least one morning news show Tuesday. Crist was asked pointedly by CNN's John Roberts why he supports government health care for children in Florida, but is campaigning against allowing government paid health care elsewhere in the nation for adults.

“That's for children,” Crist said.

Also, he noted, “it's a program that I inherited. It's a program that was already here.”

While seeming to try to distance himself from the program, Crist has touted it in the past as helpful to families and was in the Senate in 1998 when the bill creating Florida's program passed 39-0 with Crist voting for it. The measure – sponsored by Republicans George Albright and Ginny Brown-Waite - was later signed into law by then Gov. Lawton Chiles.

"The Governor does support the KidCare program and recently signed legislation that streamlines the program," said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey on Tuesday.

That legislation removed some barriers to enrollment in KidCare and his office trumpeted the legislation in a press release in June. “The legislation provides more immediate health care coverage, decreases the time required for determining eligibility, and streamlines the financial eligibility process by allowing electronic verification of family incomes,” the news release said. “Under the new legislation, more than 54,000 children will be eligible for KidCare.”

Roberts pressed Crist on Tuesday about what the difference is between government health care for children and the plan he opposes. Crist had an answer – though it got partially drowned out in television cross talk.

The difference is that KidCare is “limited,” Crist said, though he didn't elaborate. Instead the governor launched into details of Cover Florida, a private sector health care program that he has also championed.

That program was created by Crist's administration as a way to decrease the number of uninsured by encouraging enrollment in cheaper private health insurance programs that are free of some state mandates. Crist noted Tuesday that enrollment is now around 4,000, but his opponents have said that doesn't put much of a dent in the state's uninsured population, estimated at more than 3.6 million.

Even fellow Republican Marco Rubio said that on Tuesday. Rubio is running against Crist in the GOP primary for the Senate currently held by Republican Sen. George LeMieux, who was appointed by Crist to fill out the term of Mel Martinez, who resigned.

“Despite insuring less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Florida's uninsured, Crist has continued touting 'Cover Florida,'” the Rubio campaign said in a statement. “Here's how well it has worked in Florida: 3,226 have signed up. That's .088 percent of the uninsured population in the state with one of the largest uninsured populations.”

Democrats criticized Crist for running from the success of a program they say members of both parties should be proud of – and generally have been.

“It's not all that unlike the success of Medicare, and the Veterans Administration,” said Florida House Democratic spokesman Mark Hollis, pointing to two other government heath care programs that many recipients seem to like. “We already have government delivery of health care in this nation. KidCare is just another success story for this state.”

Probably the most prominent advocate working in Tallahassee to increase the reach and success of KidCare in the last decade has been Karen Woodall, of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.

She has generally praised the Crist administration for its support of KidCare, particularly when compared with the Bush administration. Jeb Bush didn't oppose the KidCare program – and in fact touted its growth early in his first term. But later, the administration supported efforts to shrink it, Woodall said.

Crist has worked to make KidCare work better, she said.

“The inconsistency is very blatant,” Woodall said. “He's been very supportive of KidCare and I think that's a good thing. It's not something to back away from.”

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