Mary Brantley wants health insurance, but the new online marketplace that opens today won't help her. Letharius Smith wants coverage, but the marketplace won't help him, either. The St. Petersburg residents don't qualify for federal subsidies that would help them buy insurance in the marketplace, and the callous Florida Legislature refused to expand Medicaid to cover 1 million Floridians like Brantley and Smith. The blame for that coverage gap falls squarely on the shoulders of House Speaker Will Weatherford and his Republican allies, who are sacrificing the health of their constituents to score political points with their conservative supporters.
The opening of the online marketplace is a reason to celebrate and should significantly reduce the number of uninsured in Florida, which has the nation's second highest rate of uninsured residents. But as the marketplace takes hold it will highlight the failure to take care of uninsured Floridians who don't qualify for Medicaid now and don't qualify for subsidies to help buy insurance on the federal marketplace because they make too little money. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act but ruled the states could not be forced to expand Medicaid, that enabled Florida to opt out of the expansion at the expense of its own residents.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has left a permanent stain on his speakership by refusing to act in the best interests of Florida. He rejects the sound economic argument that the state is refusing $51 billion in federal money for the Medicaid expansion that also would save the state money and create thousands of jobs. He rejects the moral argument that residents such as Brantley and Smith are as entitled to health care as their wealthier neighbors. And he refuses to listen to the broad coalition of supporters of expanding Medicaid, including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the health care industry. The League of Women Voters will stand with St. Petersburg business and civic leaders today to support the Medicaid expansion, and reasonable Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena and Ed Hooper of Clearwater should pay attention.
There is a better way. The Obama administration on Friday approved a plan by Arkansas to use the Medicaid expansion money to buy private coverage for low-income residents through the insurance marketplace. That eliminates one of the key arguments by Florida Republicans, who deride Medicaid even though they have privatized it by contracting with private managed care companies to run it. The Florida Senate voted 38-1 for a plan similar to Arkansas' in the spring, and Gov. Rick Scott endorsed it. Yet Weatherford refused to allow the House to vote on the Senate bill. Why? Because it would have passed if lawmakers had been free to vote in the best interest of their constituents.
The new insurance marketplace is sure to open with a few hiccups, but it is a significant step forward in providing Floridians access to more affordable health coverage. Yet it won't help Mary Brantley or Letharius Smith or 1 million of their fellow Floridians. Arkansas has shown a responsible way forward. Scott should call a special session of the Legislature this fall and tell lawmakers to follow that path, accept the Medicaid expansion money and use it to help provide access to health coverage Floridians deserve.