TALLAHASSEE — One of the chief arguments Florida House Republicans made Friday when they rejected the Senate plan to help 600,000 working poor get health insurance is that it would create a taxpayer-funded entitlement and would be hard to repeal.
What they didn't mention during the debate is that they are entitled to a very generous health insurance package that costs $22,000 a year — with premiums mostly covered by Florida taxpayers. And, over the years, they have rejected any attempts by Gov. Rick Scott to reduce the benefit.
For many of the 160 members of the Florida House and Senate, the prospect of having to scramble for cash to pay for medication and doctor visits is not something that keeps them up at night. According to financial disclosure statements, 54 legislators are millionaires and 145 of them are enrolled in the taxpayer-financed State Group Health insurance plan, which includes about 80,000 full-time state workers.
The monthly cost per legislator: $180 a month for a family, or $2,160 a year, and $50 a month, or $600 a year, for individuals. That's only a fraction of the average monthly family premium paid by most Floridians — $1,347 — according to data tabulated by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on health care issues.
Until last year, House members were part of a group of state workers who got an even better deal: $30 a month for family health insurance coverage, and $8.34 a month for individuals. That group, along with 800 legislative staff, the governor and the Cabinet are among about 17,500 state workers, known as the Senior Management and Select Exempt Service, who pay the lowest costs in the state.
Of the few legislators who don't accept the subsidized insurance are three senators and 12 House members. Some are veterans, who get health insurance from the federal government, and others retained the employer-paid insurance they had when they were elected.
One of them is Rep. Larry Lee, a Democrat from Port St. Lucie and an insurance agent. Since he was elected three years ago, Lee has refrained from accepting the state health insurance and continues to pay for his employer-sponsored plan, vowing not to accept the state plan until the House votes to cover the uninsured.
"I have quietly protested receiving what the state will give me,'' he told his colleagues Friday, as he urged them to support the Senate bill.
"God has blessed me,'' said Lee, a former teacher. He said he sent his $2,000 legislative salary for June to a local free health care clinic this month in recognition of the need for better health care.
"When I saw how cheap it was, I said that's not right,'' he said. "I didn't feel good about taking the money knowing there are people out there who could use it."
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, an ardent opponent of using federal money to expand insurance coverage in Florida, also declined the subsidized insurance.
"I've never been a big fan of those types of systems and entitlements that are not accessible to everybody,'' Oliva said. "It allows me to rail against the things I rail against to keep the moral high ground."
The state health plan includes physician care, inpatient hospitalization, outpatient services and prescription drugs, and deductibles vary by plan.
Taxpayers spend $1 million a month on the insurance for legislators and their staff, and the cost to the state is $1,264 a month to cover each family plan and $592 a month for individuals, according to the state Department of Management Services.
"What they have is certainly a privilege,'' said Katy Huddlestun, a student at the Florida International University School of Law. Last week, she dropped off 13,000 petitions from other millennials to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli urging him to extend coverage to the uninsured and close the coverage gap for people like her.
Huddlestun suffers from psoriasis, a chronic skin condition that requires her to pay thousands of dollars a month in prescription drugs. But she makes too little to qualify for Medicaid and can't afford to buy insurance on the federal health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
"I personally think it's offensive when people say that Medicaid is a handout,'' she said. "People I know that would use the help right now have no intention of being on the system forever. We're trying to break into our careers, trying to finish our degrees and, at this moment, if we don't get the help we need, we won't be able to continue with our career plans."
House Republican leaders don't see any correlation between their opposition to Medicaid expansion and taxpayer-subsidized coverage of their health insurance plans.
"That's an employer's decision,'' said Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee and an opponent of the Senate plan. He accepts the state health insurance. "That's part of the compensation package of that portion of your benefits," he said.
For the past five years, Scott has proposed increasing the subsidized health insurance rates to levels that match the national average. Although the governor has included the proposal in his budget every year since 2011, legislators have refused to go along.
Two years ago, the last time the House proposed helping the uninsured, it called for giving health care vouchers — about $2,300 a year — to parents and disabled adults who made less than $11,490 a year. In contrast, lawmakers enjoy a $22,000-a-year taxpayer-financed health insurance plan.
In 2012, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, successfully changed the insurance rate state senators pay from $8.34 to $50 a month for individuals, and from $30 to $180 a month for families. The House quietly followed in 2014.
"I thought it was only fair that we, as legislators, pay the same amount as our co-workers in state government,'' Negron said last week. "When I looked at the issue, where we were paying one-sixth of what co-workers in state government were paying, that struck me as an indefensible position."
He has not tried to raise the contribution rates for the governor and other high-level staff.
"It was a major undertaking to make that change and, once that goal was accomplished, I'm content with what we have,'' he said.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.