Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is failing the test of fiscal responsibility and compassionate leadership by rejecting federal money to expand Medicaid. The House alternative is no safety net for the uninsured and would cover a fraction of the 1 million poor Floridians who would qualify for expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. It offers false hope and too little coverage at too much cost — all so Weatherford and other Republicans can continue an ideological fight with the Obama administration.
To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott has dismissed the House proposal, and the Republican governor and the Senate should continue to push for a more pragmatic answer that uses the federal money. Scott correctly called the House plan double taxation, noting Floridians already pay federal taxes to fund health care reform and would have to pay for the House plan, which is estimated to cost $2 billion over 10 years.
The inadequacy of "Florida Health Choices Plus," drafted by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, is obvious. Even when fully implemented, it would cover only an estimated 130,000 poor, disabled adults and adults with children. It would provide $2,000 a year to help them purchase private insurance that would likely offer few benefits and have high deductibles and co-payments. The plan wouldn't take federal dollars, instead costing Florida taxpayers $237 million annually.
In addition to leaving hundreds of thousands of the state's working poor uninsured, $2,000 per enrollee is inadequate when the average cost of individual insurance plans in 2012 was more than $5,600 per year. And it is unreasonable to expect a population that makes less than the federal poverty line to afford high deductibles and co-payments. Moreover, by rejecting the federal money, the House is ensuring that other states would benefit from Floridians' federal taxes. And it guarantees that the state's safety net hospitals will have to continue providing free care to the uninsured.
A far superior Senate measure sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would provide comprehensive coverage to Florida's poor adults, including single adults, even as it follows Republican principles by relying on the private insurance market instead of Medicaid. Negron's approach uses the federal Medicaid expansion money of $51 billion over 10 years to subsidize private insurance, and the Obama administration has been open to the concept when it has been proposed by Republican governors in other states.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida support taking Medicaid expansion dollars because there is a strong business case that it will create thousands of jobs. The hospitals and the medical community support it because it will significantly reduce the number of uninsured Floridians seeking uncompensated care in emergency rooms. Scott and other Republican governors who opposed the Affordable Care Act support it because it makes financial sense and extends health coverage to those who need it.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, says he supports a strong safety net. But the House plan is no safety net at all for Floridians. It is political cover for Republicans still fighting a battle over health care reform that they already have lost in the courts, in Congress and with the public. The governor and the Senate should keep working toward a viable plan that uses the federal money and covers as many uninsured Floridians as possible. And Weatherford should consider whether he wants to be remembered as the House speaker who turned down billions in federal dollars to make a political point and deprived hundreds of thousands of Floridians access to affordable health care that could save their lives.