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Crist's health care initiative starts slow, but becomes a major campaign talking point

TALLAHASSEE — A success rate of less than a tenth of a percent might not sound like much, but to Gov. Charlie Crist it's campaign-trail bragging material for health care reform.

Crist's new Cover Florida health care initiative has signed up 3,757 people in a state with about 4 million uninsured. Meanwhile, about 77,250 Floridians have lost insurance coverage since Cover Florida began releasing statistics in March.

Yet Crist touts Cover Florida as a "national model" and as a private-sector alternative to the government-run insurance plans of congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama.

"What's happening in Washington, I don't agree with," Crist said recently. "We found a better way in Florida, by wanting to include the private sector to participate more."

Under Cover Florida, Crist's administration persuaded insurance companies to offer stripped-down health plans for stripped-down prices. The more coverage a person receives, the more he pays. That, Crist says, gives consumers more choice and less government.

Crist's government-is-the-problem tone, which has become more pronounced since he began stumping for the Senate, contrasts sharply with the approach he took to stabilize insurance rates on homes, businesses and other properties in 2007.

Then, Crist advocated for more government-run insurance to compete with private hurricane insurance companies as they raised rates and dropped customers. Now, Crist opposes government-run insurance, while health insurance companies are raising rates and dropping customers.

At least one-fifth of Florida's population lacks health coverage. Florida's uninsured rate is the third highest in the nation, according to the U.S. census.

Crist argues that health insurance costs are so high in Florida because state government requires insurers to guarantee expensive procedures and lengthy hospital stays. With some mandates lifted, six insurance companies were able to offer cheaper Cover Florida plans.

But since the government still helps ration benefits in Cover Florida, some question the conservative bona fides of Crist's plan (for details, see coverfloridahealthcare.com).

Two types of plans are available, catastrophic and preventive. Some plans have average premiums as low $50 a month. Others have deductibles as high as $5,000.

In an Aug. 5 "special message" e-mail to supporters, Crist boasted about Cover Florida as well as the Florida Discount Drug Card program, which he says has saved 100,000 people a total of $3.5 million on prescriptions since December 2007. Average savings: $35 a person.

Crist said he's confident the programs will do better. "I wish more people would sign up, but they probably will once they learn about it," he said.

A major reason few people know about Cover Florida: Crist won't spend to advertise it.

But it's not like Crist can't get the word out. In 2008, he successfully barnstormed the state to win voter approval for a tax plan that has fallen short of its promise to revive the economy. Since May, his Senate campaign has raised a record $4.3 million — enough to pay for weeks of television advertising. The health industry accounted for at least $433,000 of Crist's contributions.

Crist's opponent in the Republican primary for Senate, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, said Cover Florida's "is window dressing, a cosmetic solution." He compares the plan with Crist's property tax cut and insurance proposals. "No one at the time took Cover Florida seriously when it was passed."

Rubio often criticized many of Crist's initiatives before voting for them, and first clashed with Crist over health insurance in 2008. As Crist pushed Cover Florida, Rubio advocated a rival concept to establish a nonprofit company, Florida Health Choices Corp., that would act as a human resources department for small businesses and offer them an array of health services.

Under a compromise, the proposals were packaged together in legislation Crist signed. Crist then took nine months to appoint the Florida Health Choices governing board, crippling the effort to get the program quickly off the ground.

Democrats and liberals say it's time for more. They want the government to step in, noting that Medicaid, Medicare and Veterans Affairs Department beneficiaries like their government-run insurance programs.

Families USA, a liberal consumer advocacy group in Washington, says a government plan would lower costs and improve care.

Recent polls indicate little unity behind any health care proposal. But nearly everyone is likely to agree with Crist on this point: "I think we need to do a better job at providing health care for our fellow Americans and our fellow Floridians."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com. Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard and St. Petersburg Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

Crist's health care initiative starts slow, but becomes a major campaign talking point 08/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:19am]
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