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With taxes tamed, Crist turns to health insurance

ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Charlie Crist has embarked on a new campaign, this time in search of health insurance for the estimated one-fifth of Floridians who don't have any.

Like his victorious drive to pass the Amendment 1 property tax cut on the ballot in January, Crist is on the road again "fighting" for "the boss," the people who he says once again desperately need help. He's visiting newspaper editorial boards and holding public events to tout his ideas.

Crist again casts the insurance industry as the villain, citing "stupid restraints" in state law that are "designed to protect the insurance companies" from selling low-cost policies to the uninsured.

Crist's take-it-to-the-people formula worked on property taxes, but success will be tougher this time. The issue is more complex, and he must deal with legislators with different views on how to help the uninsured. What's more, the legislative session ends in just under three weeks.

In a plan developed largely by Crist's policy chief, former insurance regulator David Foy, the governor is proposing a market-driven approach to health care that invites private insurers to offer cheaper, more flexible coverage to consumers at no cost to the state. He envisions monthly premiums of as low as $100 to cover annual checkups and doctor visits and costlier plans that cover pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

"My plan really is David Foy's plan," Crist said. "What I want is for people to get coverage."

As Crist listened to the frustrations of uninsured workers at the Governor's Mansion on Tuesday, the House Health Care Council discussed Crist's "Cover Florida" plan for the first time. But it also considered the House's "Marketplace" proposal, which differs markedly from Crist's in some respects.

Crist wants state regulators to oversee the program, but the House wants to create a 15-member oversight board made up largely of health care professionals.

"The thought is, the more options for uninsured people to take advantage of, the better," said Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the council's chairman.

Questions flew fast and furious, and the proposal passed on an unimpressive 10-6 vote. The bill (HCC 08-18) still requires extensive debate. But that issue must compete for attention with billions of dollars in budget cuts, some of which will result in fewer people being insured.

In the Senate, however, Crist's plan has received a warmer reception. A bill (SB 2534) by Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, based on Crist's proposal, is awaiting a floor vote, but Peaden is wary of differences with the House. "We're trying to get a formula that works for everybody," Peaden said.

Seeking to build momentum for his health insurance plan, Crist also held a brief roundtable meeting with St. Anthony's Hospital executives in St. Petersburg and urged a small group of hospital employees to call their legislators and ask them to support his proposal. Hospital officials told Crist they spent $17-million last year to provide health care to the uninsured.

Dr. A.K. Desai, a hospital staff member and Crist appointee to the state Board of Education, complimented Crist and called the lack of insurance for 45-million Americans "almost a national disgrace," and reminded Crist that in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to expand health care failed to get through the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

At the Governor's Mansion during one of his "Tallahassee Tuesdays," Crist invited nine visitors who can't afford or qualify for health insurance.

Jeff and Stephanie Adams, husband-and-wife real estate agents from Marianna, are stuck with $30,000 in medical bills from Jeff's emergency gall bladder surgery last year. Belinda Borcaro of Lecanto, who works part time and is diabetic, pays $670 a month in premiums on her small salary.

Crist noted that he, like legislators, gets free health insurance courtesy of taxpayers. "Thank you for that," he said. "I'm trying to return the favor."

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

With taxes tamed, Crist turns to health insurance 04/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:25pm]
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