Top Florida lawmakers are balking at Congress' plans to help more poor people get health care, though they've protected an entitlement of their own for years: free insurance premiums.
Taxpayers have been stuck with covering the premiums — at an annual cost of about $45 million — even while lawmakers pledged to scrimp and save as they grappled with three straight years of budget shortfalls.
Florida doesn't limit the subsidies to statewide officeholders like Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, or to legislators like Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul. At least 27,479 state employees — many of them high-level bureaucrats and political appointees — also get the break. So do their families.
"I think it's appropriate. I think it's part of the compensation package for a public servant," Crist said. "It's a policy that has been supported by the Legislature and I'm comfortable with it."
The governor plans to add his wife of nearly one year, wealthy businesswoman and philanthropist Carole Crist, as well as her two daughters from a previous marriage to his health plan on Jan. 1. The girls attend an all-girls private school in New York and live with their father, who owns a jet rental company.
"There is not a residency requirement for coverage," said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey.
Only six other states offer free insurance premiums to some employees and their families, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even members of Congress pay monthly fees for health benefits.
Of the government workers who get free insurance premiums in Florida, 2,431 earn more than $100,000.
Some state officials said the health benefits should be reviewed in next year's budget talks after the Times/Herald raised questions about the subsidies. Other state government leaders defended the benefits — which do not extend to retirees — even as they rail against proposals to allow more poor people to qualify for insurance through the federal Medicaid program.
"It seems to me we need to stop it in its tracks," Crist said last week in a speech to the Broward Republican Party.
Crist's Republican rival for the U.S. Senate, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, also opposes the health care legislation in Congress. He received premium-free insurance during his eight years in the Legislature and never proposed scaling back benefits to save tax dollars.
Rubio declined to comment for this story.
"I definitely think it's hypocritical," said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, which backs the Medicaid reforms. "State legislators always have other priorities, but we're talking about health insurance for pregnant women, poor children and people who are disabled."
Under legislation in Congress to expand Medicaid, the federal government would initially pick up all of the tab for new recipients. But in three years, the state would have to start chipping in bigger sums of money.
By 2016, Florida taxpayers would have to spend about $1 billion more to help cover an additional 1.7 million Medicaid recipients under the House bill, which expands the program more than the Senate version.
Medicaid is already punching holes in Florida's budget and accounts for much of next year's projected budget shortfall of $2.7 billion.
"This unfunded mandate is a budget wrecker for Florida and one we should not be forced to endure," said Atwater, the Republican Senate president, in a statement from his campaign for state chief financial officer — a $129,000 post that also comes with subsidized health insurance.
Atwater said the generous benefits "will certainly be part of the dialogue'' in next year's budget talks. Lawmakers "have to be behaving in a way that is reflective of how every Floridian'' is cutting back on spending, he said.
Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is running for governor in 2010, also said the premiums should be part of budget negotiations. He is not on the state health insurance plan and pays premiums to Blue Cross Blue Shield.
His major Republican rival for governor, state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who is on the state plan, said she is hesitant to take away benefits from public employees who have not received annual raises. The leading Democratic candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, agreed.
"When you have employees who pay no premiums, it's a part of their total compensation package," said Sink, who is also on the plan. "To me, of greater concern, is why we might have two classes of employees in state government: One class doesn't pay any premiums and the other class does. That certainly seems unfair to me."
About 100,000 state employees pay premiums. But they pay far less than the average Floridian.
The portion of premiums paid by those state workers grew by only 55 percent in the past decade, to $600 a year for individual plans and $2,160 for family coverage.
In contrast, Florida workers' premiums have skyrocketed at least 125 percent to an average of $1,133 for an individual plan and $4,697 for family coverage annually, according to a study by the liberal policy group Families USA. At the same time, their taxes picked up an increasing share of the state employees' health plan, which rapidly grew more expensive.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, an Indialantic Republican who's slated to succeed Atwater, said the free insurance premiums make up for the part-time pay of legislators, who cut their salary this year to less than $30,000. His wife, a family doctor who treats Medicaid patients, is also covered under Haridopolos' plan.
"It's not like we pay nothing. There are co-pays and deductibles," Haridopolos said. ''It's not like Medicaid."
Newly appointed U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who previously served as Crist's chief of staff and deputy attorney general, was among 39 Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to block debate on proposed health care reforms in Congress.
"We're going to have low quality health care for the masses," he lamented during a visit last week to Miami.
Asked about his vote after years of receiving subsidized health care, LeMieux said, "It's a fair point. The government should be more like the real world. But government employees get paid less, so you have to balance that out."