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Column: Extend health coverage to those who need it

They could be your neighbors. People who go to work every day in Florida — painting houses, opening the bakery, driving a taxi, waiting tables, working at a day care or running a small mom-and-pop business that's barely breaking even. • It could be you. • These are the faces of uninsured people in our state, of working Floridians who don't receive health insurance through their job and don't earn enough to buy coverage for themselves. • Too many of them have put off medical checkups and screening tests because they can't afford them, only to discover during a visit to the ER that they have an advanced disease that could have been caught earlier. Too many have learned the hard way that health is connected to your ability to work, and a vicious cycle begins when serious illness goes untreated.

It is for these neighbors that we encourage the Legislature to join Gov. Rick Scott in support of expanding health care coverage in our state.

The federal government has already taken money from the Florida health care system to pay for this expansion. If Florida rejects it, those tax dollars will go to other states to support their Medicaid expansion and Florida will be left with a growing uninsured population and fewer resources to help them.

That means more than 1 million uninsured, low-income Floridians, including more than 200,000 people in the Tampa Bay area, will remain uncovered unless our state legislators agree to take on the relatively minimal expense that will make coverage possible. The costs to the state (approximately $3.8 billion over 10 years) are greatly outweighed by the federal funding provided to support the program ($51 billion over 10 years).

Clearly, the benefits far exceed the costs, especially for a state that is ranked 49th in the country for insured citizens. This is not an accolade we want to embrace, and we have a chance to do something about it. While we are open to discussions about the best vehicle to expand coverage, any alternative must cover at least as many Floridians as the plan envisioned under the Affordable Care Act.

Expanding health care coverage is a smart investment for Florida. Under the current system, the cost of providing medical care to the uninsured is already being borne by all of us — you the taxpayer, businesses and Florida's hospitals. This cost is being absorbed through commercial health insurance rates as a "hidden tax" and by hospital charity care. But we are all paying to deliver that care in what is by far the most inefficient and expensive way possible: through the emergency room.

As a group, we serve as the safety net for many children and families, so we know the Medicaid system is not perfect. We also are adamant that Medicaid coverage is a far better alternative for both patients and hospitals than being uninsured. Without access to primary care and routine checkups, the uninsured in our community and across the state will continue to delay care and arrive at the ER only when their condition turns dire.

In some instances, this delayed access can be fatal. At best, our doctors and nurses make a valiant attempt to treat what was once a minor illness that's turned into a chronic illness due to lack of coverage. This is expensive and life-altering for the patient who can't afford care anyway. Health is connected to work and living a productive life. We have to change the cycle.

No matter what views you hold about health reform, the Affordable Care Act is law. Right now we have a chance to make the most of it for Florida residents and businesses as well. We implore our elected officials to do the right thing and make the smart investment for our state: Extend health care coverage to those who truly need it.

Jim Burkhart is president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital; Stephen R. Mason is president and CEO of BayCare Health System; and Michael H. Schultz is president/CEO, Florida Region, Adventist Health System. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Extend health coverage to those who need it 03/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:52pm]

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