Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

Employer mandate delay propels Florida's health care debate

TALLAHASSEE — The Obama administration's decision to delay the Affordable Care Act health insurance mandate on employers has lessened some of the leverage advocates of expanding Medicaid in Florida had on lawmakers, but it won't end the debate.

On Wednesday, House Republicans cast the one-year delay as proof that lawmakers are right to worry about the consequences of the law, which they say is deeply flawed.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion, meanwhile, said the decision of the federal government shouldn't affect deliberations in Florida.

"If it's not ready for prime time, why are they trying to jam it down America's throat?" House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesely Chapel, told the Times/Herald. "I think it just clearly shows that the whole thing is just half-baked."

The Obama administration announced the yearlong delay Tuesday, saying businesses need additional time to comply. As part of the law, companies with more than 50 full-time employees must provide health care coverage to their workers or face steep fines.

The mandate mainly affects small- to medium-sized businesses that typically pay low wages, such as the restaurant and hotel industry. Some worried businesses would downsize their workforce or cut workers' hours to skirt the rule.

Most big employers, such as Publix, already offer insurance to full-time employees and are largely unaffected by the delay.

In Florida, state lawmakers added a second wrinkle when they rejected plans to expand Medicaid. Here, businesses would have been required, starting next year, to provide health care coverage to people who otherwise might have qualified for Medicaid.

With that requirement now delayed, businesses are far less likely to pressure lawmakers to approve a Medicaid deal.

The health care law's "heart is in the right place, but it's such a massive change," Florida Retail Federation president Rick McAllister said. "What happened this week should be a model for all aspects of it. Nobody is going to repeal this, but we can take our time and make it work."

Bill Herrle, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the delay "is evidence a poorly knit sweater is fraying at the edges."

The federal government said it is pressing ahead with other parts of the law, including the so-called individual mandate, which requires that most Americans have health insurance or face a penalty.

The discussions in Washington should not impact what happens in Tallahassee, said Rep. Mike Fasano. Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was the lone House Republican to support using as much as $51 billion in federal money over 10 years to reduce the number of uninsured, a plan also supported by the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott.

"With all great respect to them, one has nothing to do with the other," Fasano said.

The message was echoed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who said he supports the delay but doesn't think it should be an excuse for Florida to abandon Medicaid expansion.

"The delay by Florida's governor and Legislature to expand Medicaid is inexcusable," Nelson wrote in a statement on Facebook. "It will deny health coverage to more than one million Floridians, while the state itself will face the loss of $51 billion in federal funds."

Even before this week's decision by the federal government, Senate President Don Gaetz had appealed to the Obama administration asking for flexibility from the terms of the Medicaid expansion, which requires the state cover anyone who meets the income threshold.

Gaetz said Florida should be allowed to chose who is covered under an expansion and be allowed to charge more for doctor visits and premiums than the program currently allows.

McAllister, with the Florida Retail Federation, said he thinks Tuesday's announcement does little to change the dynamic in Tallahassee — where House Republicans seem dug in against the health care law.

"I've heard Will Weatherford say he thinks it's a bait-and-switch," he said. "The speaker is not inclined to revisit the issue — which is pretty much a death knell."

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