ORLANDO — Four days before he is to preside over new hearings on the federal health care law in Florida, state Senate leader Joe Negron said Thursday he still is conflicted over whether to expand Medicaid coverage to 864,000 uninsured Floridians.
The Stuart Republican knows people need health care, even if it comes from an already costly government program. What he's not so sure of is the real cost of growing the Medicaid rolls.
"I'm always leery of people who have something telling people who don't have it that they don't need it," he said. "At least (the uninsured would) have a Medicaid card and that's better than nothing."
But at the same time, he said Gov. Rick Scott was "reasonable" in questioning what the expansion would really cost taxpayers. Scott had been using an eye-popping $26 billion, 10-year price tag as an argument against the expansion. Wednesday, he corrected that figure to $3 billion after widespread criticism of his administration's math.
"I certainly think the governor is reasonable in questioning the cost and making sure we don't commit to something we can't afford," Negron said.
He spoke after a panel discussion at the Florida Health Care Affordability Summit, a forum sponsored by the Foundation of Associated Industries of Florida. The conference had more than a dozen sponsors, including insurance giant Humana, hospital chain Tenet Healthcare Corp. and Wal-Mart. The impact of the Affordable Care Act looms over the two-day conference at Orlando's World Center Marriott.
During one panel discussion, University of South Florida health professor Jay Wolfson pointed out that everybody with insurance indirectly foots the bill for the uninsured, through higher premiums. "Right now, we're all paying for it," he said.
Alan Levine, a senior vice president for Health Management Associates, which hopes to partner with St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center, acknowledged hospitals would be better off if their uninsured patients could get Medicaid coverage.
But he speculated young people will drop private coverage as prices rise due to provisions in the health care law. Some may end up on Medicaid, meaning higher costs than predicted.
"I think the governor's correct in that there are unknown costs," said Levine, who headed up the Agency for Health Care Administration under Gov. Jeb Bush.
Negron and Levine said the state might be more likely to go for the expansion if it is permitted more flexibility in administering the Medicaid program. But the Obama administration has stalled on the state's request to move its 3 million Medicaid patients to for-profit HMO plans, a plan opponents say would hurt patients.
Another panelist, Daniel Waldmann, a senior vice president with Tenet Healthcare, said he understands the desire to raise questions. But saying "no" will just send Florida's Medicaid funds to other states.
"The table has kind of been set, and we have to make a decision about where we want to go," he said.