Legislative session in Tallahassee concluded on March 14 with passage of a $112.1-billion budget — $10.4 billion more than last year’s spending plan. With a 105-3 vote, the budget was aided by some $3.5 billion in federal COVID relief funding that senators and representatives in the Florida House needed to allocate. 

But one Keys agency is taking a more than half-million-dollar hit that may mean far fewer health services for children in Keys schools, leaving its CEO wondering “what we’re going to do.”

A little more than $51 million in the approved 2022-23 budget supports projects and programs in the Florida Keys. But a program providing direct medical care to vulnerable children didn’t get the money it has obtained for the past eight years. 

Keys Area Health Education Center (AHEC) provides direct medical care and oral health services to medically vulnerable children. Outside of Keys AHEC, there are no comprehensive care programs in schools for students. 

With services available during school hours, it reduces access-to-care issues and allows children to maintain good health. Services include full health physicals, COVID-19 tests, sick and wellness visits, minor injury treatment, glucose testing, vision/hearing test and prescriptions, among others. 

In January, Keys AHEC expanded its services to bring a mobile dental unit staffed with a dentist and a dental hygienist to Monroe County schools throughout the Keys. The service is being offered through a fundraising partnership with the Waypoint Foundation and the Smile Maker program.

AHEC received $500,000 in the state budget for 2021-22 in order to provide continuing care to Monroe County children. This year, $650,000 was requested for Keys AHEC in order to administer vital services within the schools and fund its new mobile dental van. 

No funds were allocated to Keys AHEC by the time legislators approved the budget and left the state’s capital.

“I literally don’t know what we’re going to do and we haven’t gotten any response from our legislators about what happened,” said Michael Cunningham, CEO of AHEC. “But taking that type of hit means we’ll have to close a majority of our school-based primary care health centers and our mobile dental van will have to be indefinitely suspended, leaving thousands upon thousands of Keys residents without medical care.”

Cunningham said being shut out of the state budget “completely blindsided us.”

Keys AHEC has a lobbyist, he said, who had reported back from Tallahassee that things looked fine. He couldn’t put his finger on what happened, other than perhaps a change in priorities at the state level.

“If you asked for money for the environment, housing or something for tourists, you were fine, but health care for low- and moderate-income families and children get nothing,” he said.

Andrew Palmer, of Metz Husband & Daughton, was the registered lobbyist who worked to secure funding for the project. Calls and emails weren’t returned as of press time. 

The appropriations bill for AHEC was filed by state Rep. Jim Mooney last November. It was reported favorable out of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee on Jan. 18. The request didn’t get much traction after that. 

Mooney said no appropriation for Keys AHEC was a disappointment. 

“It never seemed to get rolling. I don’t know why,” Mooney said. “We did all we could do. I don’t know what the lobby team did. I never really heard from them. I don’t even know who their lobby team is, to be honest.”

State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez told the Keys Weekly that while it’s unfortunate the specific project didn’t make it in the final budget, she was proud to secure nearly $100 million in appropriations in other healthcare programs.

Of the $51-plus million in Keys funding approved, $20 million is headed to the Florida Keys Stewardship Act. The request was included in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget proposal, as well as Senate and House proposals. Funds go to critical water quality projects. 

Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority received $20 million to replace aging transmission lines. It comes after a number of breaks from the Upper Keys to Big Pine Key last year. 

“Unlike a lot of other systems, we can’t re-route our water. We got one pipe for it to come down,” said Kerry Shelby, Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority executive director. “This was a big win for us. We’re thrilled to be able to have some of that money to take some of the burden off the ratepayers.” 

A total of $1.9 million is going to support the local Habitat for Humanity organizations throughout the Keys. Funding will be used for 27 affordable housing units — 13 in the Upper Keys, six in the Middle Keys and eight in the Lower Keys. Per the request, money for these projects will increase the ability for employees to find affordable housing options in the community.

Mote Marine Laboratory is receiving $1 million to develop coral technologies, develop on-land and in-water nurseries for coral reef restoration and provide physical restoration. Pigeon Key will receive $770,000 for wastewater treatment and irrigation upgrades, while the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West received $250,000 for interior wall repair and restoration and exterior hardening. 

Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens received $150,000 to help individuals with varying disabilities obtain and remain in competitive employment. 

Among funding requests not in the approved budget were $300,000 for a Key West glass crusher facility and nearly $1 million for a Category 5 aquaponics facility in the Keys, It’s a project between Fresh Ministries and the College of the Florida Keys. Kate DeLoach, lobbyist for The Southern Group, said the aquaponics bill looked to address food insecurity.

“It’s a first-year project we brought forward,” DeLoach said. “We’ll bring it back next session.” 

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.