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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas lawmakers talk Medicaid, cheap House health insurance at Tiger Bay

Three Pinellas County legislators who voted against accepting federal Medicaid money defended their heavily subsidized state health plans Tuesday but said they were open to footing more of the bill.

Reps. Larry Ahern, Ed Hooper and Kathleen Peters were among eight Pinellas legislators grilled Tuesday by members of Suncoast Tiger Bay about the legislative session. The health insurance juxtaposition, highlighted by the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday, was the focus of a couple questions at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater hotel luncheon.

The House proposal would have provided modest coverage to low-income parents and childless adults at a cost of $25 a month. In any other year it would have been applauded, Ahern said, but it was nothing compared to “what Uncle Sugar Daddy was offering,” referring to the federal government and its $16 trillion debt.

House members will pay $8.34 a month for health care next year, or $30 a month to cover family. The low premiums have always been the case, Ahern told the Times. Still, Speaker Will Weatherford signalled the discrepancy between what House members pay compared to state workers may be addressed next session.

“I wouldn’t mind paying more for that insurance,” Ahern said.

Taxpayers pay nearly $600 a month to cover each individual House member, according to the state. Lois Fries, a 73-year-old Democrat from Largo, seized on that and asked, “How do you justify that hypocrisy without expanding Medicaid?”

Hooper pointed to the national debt, saying Florida could not rely on the “irresponsible” feds. Peters stressed she voted against the Medicaid alternative because there was never a focus on how it would work, not because of the federal money.

In an interview, she echoed a point by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, that lawmakers only make about $29,000 a year and are the only public employees not getting raises.

But the House’s low family coverage compared to most state workers is “not fair and equitable,” she said.

Florida senators in 2012 agreed to increase the premiums they pay to match most state employees. No one has explained why the House declined to follow the Senate. The increase was included in Gov. Rick Scott’s budget recommendations.

“There just wasn’t time to address every important issue that we had to deal with,” Hooper saidin an interview, blaming in part the Medicaid debate. Hooper, of Clearwater, said he would vote for a higher premium if there’s a movement to “jack it up.”

Rep. Dwight Dudley, R-St. Petersburg, said taxpayers are already paying for the care of uninsured Floridians through their use of costly emergency rooms. Away from the mic,  Hooper called that “B.S.,” as in bull----, as he sat beside Dudley.

“It’s not B.S.,” Dudley said.

Other topics in the luncheon included red-light cameras, the environmental permitting bill (HB 999) that included a Peters priority dealing with submerged land leases, and the parent trigger bill. Republicans praised their leaders for running a pretty smooth and amicable session that resulted in ethics, campaign finance and elections reforms. Democrats said the stalemate over Medicaid negated some of their good feelings toward Weatherford, and the reforms were not as extensive as they should have been.

There was ribbing about who had the most hometown projects. Latvala joked that a report by Florida TaxWatch on budget “turkeys,” or wasteful projects, will have a chapter on Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

There was a little talk about “Mary,” the robotic House auto-reader that sped through legislative text for hours when Democrats voted to have all bills read in full. The procedural, time-killing move was in protest of the House Medicaid position.

“You guys disrespected (Weatherford) with your trick of reading the bills on the floor,” Hooper said. “He was hurt by that, and I think he certainly had a right to be hurt, and I wish that hadn’t happened.”

“I’m sorry, that’s a good one,” said an unrepentant Dudley, to laughs.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 6:31pm]


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