Gov. Rick Scott and his right-wing extremists in the Legislature are putting their hatred of President Barack Obama and health care reform ahead of Florida's poor children. Their rejection of a modest federal grant that has helped dozens of families in Pinellas County and hundreds statewide shamefully values rigid political ideology over the well-being of our own residents. But such callous calculations do not reflect the values of Floridians, who should demand better.
Scott's Department of Health has turned down a $4.9 million federal grant tied to the Affordable Care Act because the Legislature refused to allow the money to be spent. The Healthy Start Coalition of Pinellas has used its share of last year's money — which the Legislature approved because it was also tied to another federal program — to focus on parents with children who are born with drugs in their system. The mother or father, or both, work with a parent educator who can help them with all sorts challenges. It might be drug treatment or a job search, or parenting classes or housing, or finding a food bank or mental health counseling. Now 84 Pinellas families with 217 children will lose that help unless the Healthy Start Coalition can cobble together another solution. The message from Tallahassee: Tough. You're on your own.
There is nothing conservative about rejecting this federal money, part of a five-year, $1.5 billion program that uses home visiting programs to help at-risk poor children. It won't lower the federal deficit, because you can bet a more enlightened state will take the cash. It is not top-down government, because the program relies on folks on the ground like the Healthy Start Coalition to tailor the help to meet the needs of individual families. It is not about accountability, because the coalition has been around for two decades and has proven results. It certainly isn't about being cost efficient. Investing a modest amount of public dollars to help these families now will save plenty of money later if these children can stay out of foster care, in school and out of trouble that leads to crime and prison.
This is about ideological purity at the expense of Floridians who need help. Scott fought Obama and health care reform before he was elected governor. He and the Legislature have rejected millions in federal money tied to the law, and they fought the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost in court, and still they refuse to accept much of the health care money or prepare to carry out the reforms. While they hope Mitt Romney wins the presidential election and persuades Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Floridians are suffering the consequences of their blind obsession.
Pinellas residents are all too familiar with this narrow-mindedness about public health. Four conservative Republican members of the County Commission — Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield, John Morroni and Norm Roche — voted to take fluoride out of the county's drinking water this year. Whether it is the state capital or the county courthouse, preventive care and proven results are no match for political pandering to the most rigid wing of the Republican Party.
Elections have a real impact in the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Scott is a long two years away from seeking re-election, but legislators will be on the November ballot. So will two of the Pinellas commissioners, Bostock and Brickfield, who voted to remove fluoride. Voters should send a message that being conservative does not mean abandoning shared responsibility for healthy communities or refusing to invest smartly now to avoid far larger public costs later.