Fla. House, Senate not budging on Medicaid plans
By KELLI KENNEDY and GARY FINEOUT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Just months ago, expanding health coverage to more than 1 million Floridians seemed an unlikely feat.
Then slowly the hurdles fell, first as Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced his support for Medicaid expansion and more recently as business interests, labor advocates and health care providers rallied behind a proposal from a Republican senator that would funnel billions of federal dollars into private insurance. But with less than two weeks left in the session, Republican leaders in the House seem unwilling to accept any money tied to the federal Affordable Care Act.
Now the decision may come down to a moderate bloc of House Republicans -- or it may fizzle entirely.
Sen. John Thrasher, one of the top ranking Republicans in the Senate, predicted Monday the Senate will vote on a bill by Sen. Joe Negron. It would provide health coverage to roughly 1.1 million Floridians, drawing down an estimate $51 billion in federal funds over the next decade and giving that money to residents to purchase private health insurance. House Republicans, however, have thumbed their nose at any proposal that would accept money tied to the so-called "Obamacare."
"The Florida Senate never waves the white flag," Thrasher said. "That would be an embarrassment to wave the white flag."
Seeking a compromise, Republican Sen. Aaron Bean proposed a plan that won approval from the Senate's budget panel Monday. It would bypass federal dollars and spend state money to provide health coverage to roughly 115,000 residents. Bean urged colleagues to pass it, "just so we can keep our options open."
But Thrasher said the Senate does not plan to take up Bean's bill on the floor or endorse the House approach.
And House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, appeared unmoved by the prospect that the Senate may reject the House proposal.
"It's okay that we're in different places right now and we hope to be in the same place by next Friday. But if we're not, that doesn't mean that the world comes to an end. It just means we're going to have to continue to talk in the offseason and find some middle ground later," he said.
With the House and Senate at odds, religious groups, the Florida Hospital Association and the union representing health care workers are turning up the heat with television commercials, letters to lawmakers and press conferences.
New commercials by the Service Employees International Union accuse several Republican lawmakers of putting politics ahead of working families by blocking more than $50 billion in federal money that should go to expand health coverage and letting working parents go without health insurance.
SEIU Florida President Monica Russo said the group looked for House Republicans who have not pledged their support for Medicaid expansion or a comprehensive alternative and who live in districts where constituents support expansion. They also chose lawmakers who live in vulnerable districts where President Barack Obama either won or narrowly lost.
"It's extremely disappointing for real, hard working folks out there who are really struggling to make ends meet and going to work every day to see their state legislators putting ideology over the health of our community when the resources are there to pay for it," said Russo.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who is among those targeted in the ad, said he rejects the all-or-nothing approach to Medicaid expansion.
"If we're going to take federal dollars to fund something we don't know is going to be there in three years, we have to be really thoughtful in the position we take," said the Miami Republican. He said the House proposal is sustainable, and won't force cuts three years down the road.
The Florida Remedy, an advocacy group for the Florida Hospital Association, said Monday it has spent a six-figure sum on ads in cities including Miami, Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, urging lawmakers to accept the federal dollars.
Weatherford says there's still time to get the Senate on board with the House plan, which would use $237 million in state funds to give recipients $2,000 a year to choose their own private insurance plans through the Florida Health Choices program. The Obama administration has sought to offer health insurance to more Americans by extending the Medicaid eligibility levels to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level. Bean's plan and the one in the House only address residents making at or below 100 percent. That's roughly $11,000 a year for a single person and about $19,500 for family of three.
Gov. Rick Scott has expressed support for Sen. Negron's plan. He said rejecting federal funds and ponying up state dollars for health coverage puts a double burden on Florida taxpayers.
Scott on Tuesday repeated that the House and Senate "know exactly where I stand on this and I'm very hopeful that they will do the right thing."
Negron has also proposed blending the House and Senate concepts and allowing recipients to choose which approach works best for them.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, crossed party lines and sided with Democrats to propose a plan similar to Negron's. It was promptly shot down last week.
"When your hands are tied and you're given a limited amount of time and resources, you can only come up with a plan that will impact so many people," he said of the House proposal.
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