Sunday, April 22, 2018
Health

Group calls on Florida officials to reconsider their stand against Medicaid expansion

ST. PETERSBURG — Politicians, clergy and academics who favor Medicaid expansion made their pitch Wednesday on the steps of City Hall, this time with a new report to back them up.

Tampa Bay and the rest of Florida, they said, would be in much better health if the Legislature would change course and expand Medicaid to cover more residents. Expansion also could boost the area's fortunes, according to the report, sponsored by Florida CHAIN, a pro-expansion nonprofit.

"We are missing providing essential services that not only improve the quality of life for people but the economy," said Mark Pafford, CEO of Florida CHAIN and the Democratic Florida House minority leader from West Palm Beach.

Among the report's findings:

• In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, almost 110,000 uninsured adults between ages 18 and 64 could receive coverage under Medicaid expansion. Both counties report higher-than-average premature deaths among people under 75. Plus, 17 percent of Hillsborough residents and 14 percent of those in Pinellas report being in fair or poor health, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. "States that have expanded coverage eligibility show significant increases in self-reported health status," the report asserts.

• More than 3,000 area uninsured veterans under 65 could gain coverage under Medicaid expansion, taking pressure off a strained VA system.

• Expansion would reduce the cost of uncompensated care at local hospitals. Without it, the multimillion-dollar burden stands to increase because the federal government is cutting its old program for reimbursing hospitals for uninsured patients.

• The Tampa Bay region could see 23,000 new jobs, the result of millions of dollars in federal money returning to the area, according to a methodology developed by Kentucky economists when that state expanded Medicaid.

In developing the report, Florida CHAIN partnered with the League of Women Voters of Florida, Tampa Bay Healthcare Collaborative and Tampa Crossroads.

Despite the rosy picture it paints of a Florida with expanded Medicaid, there are roadblocks. Florida lawmakers have refused to expand the program.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states can opt to expand coverage to those earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $16,394 for individuals and $33,534 for a family of four. The federal government is initially paying the full tab for expansion, gradually decreasing its share to 90 percent of costs by 2020.

In 2013, the Republican-controlled state Senate approved a plan to use federal Medicaid expansion money to buy private insurance policies for poor Floridians. But the more conservative Florida House blocked the measure, saying Medicaid was too broken to extend.

The debate bubbled up again in 2015, growing so heated that House leaders decided to adjourn early. Most observers agree Medicaid expansion remains unlikely in 2017.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has been one of the leading voices against the policy, and has said he has no intention of reconsidering his position, even though hospitals that serve the poor are projected to lose millions in federal "low-income pool" funding.

Pafford — flanked by former Gov. Charlie Crist, state Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, the Rev. James T. Golden of Bradenton and others — said advocates would need a "full-court press" to get anything across the finish line this year.

"Medicaid expansion is going to happen," Pafford said. "The question at this point is: Who's going to be the hero? We've got to change this discussion. We've got to spin it in a way that people understand."

The Rev. Russell L. Meyer, who heads the Florida Council of Churches, said clergy and community members need to ask lawmakers what they're doing in the way of Medicaid expansion, especially in the run up to the November election.

"If you expect to come into God's house and say you want to be a representative of God's people, then you need to show how you're going to deliver health care to God's people," Meyer said.

Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

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