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State asks for flexibility with federal money

Relaxed health care regulations could help offset Florida's Medicaid deficit.

State lawmakers know what they want from their federal counterparts: flexibility to use money from Washington in ways that better serve Florida.

"We're not asking for more money. The bottom line is, we appreciate what you do," state House Speaker Tom Feeney told members of Florida's congressional delegation Monday during the state's third annual Federal/State Summit.

But if the state could tailor some federal programs to meet Florida's unique needs, it could accomplish more, Feeney and other state lawmakers agreed. And that means cutting some of the red tape that comes attached to federal money for state programs.

Department of Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney used visual aids to bolster her presentation during a workshop. She lifted several heavy binders filled with the forms her workers must submit whenever federal money is used to help a child.

One caseworker was unable to fill out all the required paperwork to remove a child from a home, Kearney said.

"So the child was returned to an unsafe home" and later killed, she said.

U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, promised to look at ways to streamline the paperwork. "You tell a compelling story," Thurman said.

But it's in health care that state officials said they could really use a relaxing of regulations, especially when it comes to Medicaid waivers. If six of Florida's pending applications for waivers and state program changes were approved by the federal government, it would bring another $50-million into the state's Medicaid program, said Bob Sharpe, Agency for Health Care Administration deputy secretary. A seventh waiver application would bring in much more, he said.

That could help offset the nearly $1-billion Medicaid deficit facing the state this year. The state's priority among its applications, some of which have been pending for two years, is a proposal to use some Medicaid dollars for community-based care designed to keep the elderly out of nursing homes.

But delays and denials by the federal agency that oversees states' Medicaid programs has kept Florida from pursuing those changes, which in this case would bring new federal dollars into the state.

The congressional delegation agreed to help. Members have signed a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson asking him to expedite a review of Florida's applications.

"We are aware of the problem. We are working on the program," said U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala.

In addition to health and family care, state and federal lawmakers broke up into groups to discuss education, transportation, natural resources, agriculture and other topics.