Floridians like to boast about being home to some of the country's most famous sports teams and their multimillion-dollar stars. But when it comes to seizing the opportunity to provide tens of thousands of jobs and provide health care for its low-income workers, the Sunshine State is about to drop the $51 billion ball.
That is the amount of money the state would receive from the federal government to help expand Medicaid coverage to nearly 1 million residents who are without health insurance. Why should you care? Your insurance premiums are likely to go up if the uninsured can only get treatment, even for minor ailments, in emergency rooms.
At a recent statewide visioning Summit in Orlando, lawmakers and business participants talked about making Florida No. 1 in health. Being the "healthiest state in America" actually emerged as a top goal in the final list. However, as is often the case, talk can be cheap. Despite the governor and Senate president's support for taking the $51 billion in federal funds to help our state and cover low-wage workers, the House under Speaker Will Weatherford's leadership continues to say no.
Other states — both Republican and Democratic — are playing in the big leagues when it comes to improving their citizens' health. More than 25 states have now said, yes, we'll take the Medicaid expansion money to make sure all lower-wage workers are covered.
How does this help a state improve health? By providing preventive care, so problems don't grow in severity and end up getting treated in the most expensive place — the emergency room, where you and I end up paying to make up the hospitals' shortfall.
New federal health care programs have had a slow start in the past. It is interesting to note that 26 states didn't launch Medicaid in the 1960s when the program started. Arizona waited until 1982. This time Arizona, under the leadership of conservative Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, was one of the first in line to say yes to Medicaid expansion, and just recently Ohio, with Republican Gov. John Kasich's leadership, also said yes.
Of the 25 states that have chosen to expand Medicaid, Kentucky and Ohio at first declined and then realized the tremendous benefits for its people and the chance to be in the big league for health. The deadline for not losing millions of dollars a day is Jan. 1. After that, our tax dollars will go to other states, so they can make their citizens healthier.
Business leaders like the Chambers of Commerce of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Associated Industries of Florida, as well as groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, have urged the state to accept the federal money. The expansion is predicted to create about 120,000 jobs, according to a recent University of Florida study, and some consultants suggest that companies may be forced to move to states with more business-friendly health care laws.
So, the clock is ticking. If Floridians are to get the coverage they deserve, the House and Senate need to be sure they have a working plan in place that will take the federal funds that are available, and "get to work" on making Florida the "healthiest state." When it comes to their health, all Floridians deserve a chance to get coverage.
Being No. 2 in uninsured households should be unacceptable to Floridians. It should be unacceptable to Speaker Weatherford. We can only hope he and his fellow lawmakers in Tallahassee will heed the call of the civic and business community to join health care's big leagues.
Good health is profitable for Florida and essential for all Floridians. So let's get to work. Let's take the money.
Karen Coale, left, is president of the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg. Shirley Arcuri is president of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.