TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) - Former foster children are eligible for health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act until they turn 26 years old, but many in Florida don't know it yet.
Just as the 2010 health-care law extends coverage to young adults on their parents' insurance policies until age 26, it also extends Medicaid coverage to those who were in foster care on their 18th birthdays.
"This coverage is for youth who don't have access to their parents' coverage, and so the states have an important obligation to cover them," said Alice Bussiere, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. "And we think it's particularly important because the research indicates that youth who have emancipated from foster care have high health-care needs as compared with their peers, but they're less like to be covered once they leave foster care."
So far in Florida, though, it's unclear how many are enrolled.
Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Michelle Glady said 10,116 young adults are eligible for the extended Medicaid coverage and that, as of April 6, 5,875 had applied.
But advocates said both of those numbers might be too high.
"That number is surprising --- it doesn't mesh with our experience," said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "We'll be pleased if it's accurate, and are prepared to work with the department to find all the eligible youth who are not currently enrolled."
DCF did not have figures for how many had actually enrolled.
"We've seen some problems with the state's eligibility determination process that may be preventing eligible former foster youth from being able to access this Medicaid coverage," said Amy Guinan, an attorney at Florida Legal Services. "But we've brought it to the attention of DCF and are in the process of meeting with them to figure out what's causing these problems and how they can be fixed."
Guinan and Rosenberg are scheduled to meet Wednesday with DCF Deputy Secretary Pete Digre.
Bussiere of the Youth Law Center recommended that states dedicate web sites for potential enrollees, which she said is important not only in terms of getting the word out, but for helping people who have problems enrolling.
Since by definition, children in foster care have been abused or neglected, they also have higher needs for substance abuse and mental health treatment. "Within the Medicaid program, claims data show that as many as 57 percent of youth in foster care meet criteria for a mental disorder," Governing Magazine reported last month.
Former foster children also tend to have missed out on routine medical and dental care.
"Dental is huge," said Geori Berman, coordinator for Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group for foster youths and an offshoot of Florida's Children First. "Our demographic is wisdom-teeth years. …What I've heard on the phone (from former foster youths) is, 'Now I can go to the dentist and get extractions that I need.' "
Georgina Rodriguez, 23, is an example --- in fact, she served as a test case for Florida Legal Services in trouble-shooting the expanded Medicaid coverage. Rodriguez is a member of Youth SHINE who began trying to enroll in December and had trouble signing up. She encountered roadblocks that Florida Legal Services then incorporated into a question-and-answer guide for potential enrollees.
Rodriguez, who works two jobs and wants to go to law school, suffers from Bell's palsy, a facial paralysis that attacks in episodes lasting weeks or months. Before she had health care coverage, she would get treatment at an emergency room --- which would prolong the duration of the attacks.
"They'd tell me, 'We can't give you anything until we know it's Bell's palsy,' " she said of the emergency-room personnel.
Now, however, Rodriguez has a neurologist and can get steroids to blunt oncoming attacks. She's also been able to have her infected wisdom teeth extracted.
"I'm thankful every day," she said.
This report is by Margie Menzel of The News Service of Florida.
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