While there are tentative signs the economy is recovering in Florida and the nation, it is far from a solid comeback. So it is essential that the Senate push hard this week to pass legislation that sends additional Medicaid money to states depending on it to balance budgets and ensure poor residents have access to health care. Concerns about the federal deficit are legitimate, but they cannot be an excuse for failing to care for the neediest Americans still struggling with the impact of the recession.
The federal government already has sent billions in additional Medicaid money to states as part of the stimulus package, including more than $3 billion to Florida. But that money runs out at the end of 2010, and Florida and other states have been counting on continued help to balance 2010-11 budgets. Yet the House cut from its job bill both the additional Medicaid money and COBRA health care subsidies for workers who are laid off after May 31. That enables House members to claim to be deficit hawks on the campaign trail, but it is no way to nurture the economy and is terribly hurtful to struggling American families.
Florida state legislators were relatively conservative in counting on the additional Medicaid money, compared to other states. The Legislature included $260 million in the 2010-11 budget that would enable additional spending in areas ranging from transportation to health care to education. The rest of the $1 billion the state would get would be held in reserve. But the New York Times reports Pennsylvania is counting on spending $850 million in Medicaid help or will face laying off more than 20,000 government workers. California, facing a budget shortfall of $19 billion, is counting on $1.5 billion. Triggering tens of thousands of layoffs around the country when the nation added only 41,000 private sector jobs last month could kill the modest shoots of recovery.
The COBRA subsidies cut by the House also should be restored by the Senate. Families USA reports Florida is one of 11 states where the average COBRA premium for family health coverage is more than the average unemployment benefit. Losing a job should not be compounded by losing the opportunity to hold on to private health care coverage for a few months while looking for work. Families who cannot keep the coverage have to go without or wind up on the Medicaid rolls.
Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux, should back the Senate's efforts to approve the extension of the Medicaid money and the COBRA subsidies. LeMieux has been more interested in avoiding deficit spending than helping struggling Floridians, voting against a recent extension of unemployment benefits. His concern about the growing federal deficit is legitimate, and the nation has to tackle it in a comprehensive way that will require considerable sacrifice. But drawing a line in the sand now is counterproductive.
The most positive way to lessen deficit spending is to create a healthy economy. The most immediate way to make more progress toward that elusive goal is for Congress to approve the extension of Medicaid money to the states and COBRA subsidies to Americans who have enough to worry about besides whether they can afford to take their kids to the doctor.