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Fiscal discipline or irresponsibility?

TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Aaron Bean has a job that would dampen the spirits of the most upbeat politicians.

The term-limited lawmaker with the fast-talking patter of a game show emcee is spending his final session defending nearly $1-billion in cuts to health care programs effecting some of Florida's poorest, sickest, youngest and oldest residents.

But Bean said it goes with the job. "It's like when you get married, you sign up for better or worse. That's part of your sworn oath," Bean says.

As the Republican chairman of the House Health Care Council, Bean oversees about $22-billion in spending, nearly a third of Florida's next state budget. But he's also the one helping craft some of the deepest cuts.

Among Bean's work in the budget plan the House will begin debating Wednesday: eliminate 703 jobs in the Department of Children and Families, including 71 child abuse investigator jobs; end hospice care for 7,700 Medicaid patients; stop hospital care for 19,500 uninsured patients with catastrophic illnesses; close the state's only tuberculosis hospital; and reduce $7-million in funding to help foster children adjust to life on their own.

"We're making informed choices the best we can to balance the needs of living within our means, but also making sure the state protects its most vulnerable citizens," Bean says.

But what Bean calls fiscal discipline, others, mostly Democrats, call irresponsible at a time when child abuse, infant mortality and other societal ills are on the rise.

"It's impacting our constituents and families that are struggling and trying to get help," Rep. Loranne Ausley. D-Tallahassee, told Bean at a recent hearing.

"Where can we take money from to put more money into those programs?" Bean responded. "But I'm with you. I share the concern."

Bean, 41, is a Compass Bank executive and father of three children from Fernandina Beach, a historic, picturesque waterfront town on the state's northeastern tip. The boyish-looking Bean was one of 63 freshmen who entered the House in 2000, a year of near-record turnover from the first wave of term limits. He hopes to return in 2010 as a state senator.

Bean has critics in his own party, too, including the Senate's health and social services budget chairman, Republican Durell Peaden of Crestview. A former nursing home administrator, Peaden opposes Bean's support for a two-year repeal of higher nursing home staffing ratios that were enacted in 2001.

Bean said the industry asked for more flexibility to cope with $278-million in Medicaid payments.

In recent weeks, his e-mail inbox has been overflowing with pleas for help across the health care spectrum. For example, Lesley Diane Marino of Clearwater pleaded for Bean to support a bill (HB 1311) to expand Medicaid coverage for the disabled. But the bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Bean also could face a clash with Gov. Charlie Crist, who favors expanded care for people with autism. Bean opposes adding any more mandated coverages in health insurance policies.

"He's a gentleman. I'm encouraging him very strongly to do the right thing," Crist said.

Most budget chairmen would rather spend than cut. Bean says the latest cuts were overdue.

"I think we're going to be a much healthier state long-term by making these reductions, by living within our means," Bean said. "Government has grown too fast."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fiscal discipline or irresponsibility? 04/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:40pm]
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