Keys AHEC’s dental van, launched in January, will continue thanks to community support after a state budget shocker. CONTRIBUTED

On March 14, when the Florida state legislature passed a record-high $112.1 billion budget, Keys Area Health Education Center (AHEC) was devastated to learn that the spending plan did not include the $650,000 requested for the organization in order to provide medical and dental care to vulnerable Keys children in low- and moderate-income families. 

In fact, though it received significant funding for the last eight years — $500,000 for the 2021-2022 fiscal year — not a dime would come to the organization from the state level in 2022-2023.

“I literally don’t know what we’re going to do,” Michael Cunningham, AHEC CEO, told Keys Weekly upon learning the news.

But less than 90 days later, Cunningham says local governments and community organizations have answered the call for AHEC, with donations and commitments currently covering all but $20,000 of the agency’s original request to the state.

“It really was a daunting task to have to take on … but the community really came together,” said Cunningham. “There were multiple entities and individuals who reached out to us and helped with the process, whether it was directing us to specific foundations with specific assets or making introductions to individuals and other entities that we didn’t have a relationship with in the past.”

Keys AHEC CEO Michael Cunningham. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Though some commitments have yet to be fully finalized, AHEC’s tally currently includes: $100,000 from the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, with a $50,000 gift and another $50,000 requiring matching donations; another $100,000 grant obtained through the same foundation requiring a match; a $25,000 donation from the Ocean Reef Children’s Foundation; a $200,000 donation from the Edward B. and Joan T. Knight Foundation; a $25,000 donation from insurer Florida Blue; a $50,000 donation from Baptist Health South Florida; two $10,000 donations from the Key West Noon Time and Marathon Rotary Clubs; and a $9,500 donation from United Way of Collier County.

Other commitments from the Monroe County School District, the cities of Key West and Marathon, and the Village of Islamorada are in the works.

AHEC provides services to children during school hours including, but not limited to, yearly physical exams, COVID-19 testing, sick and wellness visits, treatment for minor injuries, and vision and hearing tests and prescriptions. In January, the nonprofit partnered with the Waypoint Foundation and the Smile Maker program to add a state-of-the-art mobile dental van and serve all areas of the Keys on a rotating schedule. 

According to Cunningham, much of AHEC’s offerings would have been temporarily axed if community partners hadn’t stepped up.

“With a $650,000 loss, that would have been roughly 60% of our funds,” he said. “We would have had to close about a third of our health centers and eliminate the dental program altogether. Having this support gives us a full budget, which means that we’ll be able to keep all centers open and be able to run our full dental program throughout next year.”

While the appropriations bill for AHEC was filed by state Rep. Jim Mooney in November 2021 and reported favorably out of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee on Jan. 18, the organization has yet to receive a solid answer as to why the longtime funding request didn’t make it to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But looking forward, Cunningham said conversations with state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Mooney have been encouraging, with AHEC moving up the list as a “renewed priority” for the next year.

In addition, AHEC has secured a new lobbying firm, moving on from lobbyists at Metz, Husband & Daughton in favor of Johnston & Stewart Government Strategies.

“I think with a new lobbying firm, we’re going to be very active with our local legislators as well as those on the Appropriations Committee, more so than we have been in the past,” said Cunningham. “It will include multiple visits to those individuals and offices throughout the legislative calendar. … We should have their full attention next year.”

Offering special thanks to Uri Mikolay of the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Baptist Health and local municipalities, Cunningham said that while he is hesitant to see a silver lining in a major budget shortfall, the organization is beyond grateful for the new sources of community support.

“This will be something that we look back on and we learned from,” he said. “Certainly the new relationships and people understanding what we do and the importance of it, that was one of the positives that came out of the situation.”

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.