President Barack Obama extended an olive branch this week to opponents of health care reform by agreeing to let states act sooner to create their own programs. It's a smart political move for the president, and it could lead to innovative solutions by states whose leaders are sincerely interested in ensuring their residents have access to affordable health care. Unfortunately, Florida is not one of those enlightened states.
More than 4 million Floridians are uninsured, yet Republicans in Tallahassee fight health care reform at every turn and are more interested in saving money and battling Obama than in helping residents get coverage. Gov. Rick Scott deceives voters by calling the federal law a jobs killer, and Attorney General Pam Bondi basks in publicity surrounding the Florida-led federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the law. The state Senate even plans to vote next week to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that aims to prevent Florida from participating in national health care reform.
The fight stretches beyond lawsuits and political rhetoric. Since Scott took office, the state has returned federal grants that would have helped pay for preparing for health care reform. The state insurance commissioner is fighting another federal provision that puts tighter limits on what portion of insurers' premiums can be earmarked for profits and administrative costs. And Florida has not lifted a finger to create the separate insurance pool for high-risk patients or state insurance exchange that are key pieces of the federal reforms. The best hope for affordable, accessible health care for Floridians still comes from Washington, not Tallahassee.
In fact, the Scott administration would rather deny health coverage than expand it. The governor's budget proposal would gut the Medically Needy program, which serves poor residents with serious illnesses who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but whose health care costs are financially crippling. And his state Department of Health released a report this week that recommends the state stop paying for primary care services at county health clinics. These are not well-intended reforms. They are cynical cost-saving measures that would inflict more pain on Floridians who have nowhere else to turn for medical treatment. The result would be their health care costs would be shifted to local taxpayers and patients with private insurance.
Obama's offer is aimed at more progressive public servants. He supports legislation sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, that would allow states to establish their own health care reforms starting in 2014 instead of waiting until 2017. That way, states could begin their experiments at the same time as key elements of the national reforms kick in, including the state health care exchanges and the requirements that most businesses offer insurance and everyone be covered.
This is a reasonable compromise. After all, the focus should be on the broad goal rather than the method: creating available, affordable health coverage that does not increase the federal deficit. It may be that innovative governors and state lawmakers can create smarter reforms than the federal law outlines that are better tailored to the needs of their residents.
Perhaps one day, Tallahassee will see the light. At the moment, this state is stuck with a governor and state lawmakers who are more focused on fighting the president than helping Floridians.