The first committee meeting of the 2013 legislative session was the Senate's Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and it had all the makings of a classic: a grim overview on the implementation of a controversial new law, shouting audience members and fiery monologue from a senior senator.
Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who is leading the committee, started off the meeting by outlining his three guiding principles when considering Florida's implementation of the so-called "Obamacare" law:
His vice-chairwoman, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, indicated that she will encourage her colleagues to embrace the law.
"Being that this is the law, we have to abide by the law and do what's best for the people of Florida in terms of their healthcare," she said. "Being the state with the third largest uninsured population, I think that needs to be reckoned with. And I think that we need to adjust our attitudes to make sure that eerybody has health insurance and a health care policy that is affordable and accessible."
Florida has many decisions to make, as outlined in a lengthy presentation given to the committee. For example, even if the state does not embrace the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, it will still have to deal with the costs of paying doctors more under Medicaid as required by the law. And there may be more people that sign up for Medicaid under the existing requirements, something that the state will have to pay for regardless.
When it comes to a health exchange, Florida has to decide in the coming weeks whether it wants to create its own, partner with the federal government or just allow a federal exchange to be set up in the state.
As of mid-November, 16 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to create state-based exchanges, the committee was told. Five states opted for partnerships: Michigan, Illinois, Arkansas, North Carolina and Delaware. Eighteen others said they will not set up exchanges and instead have deferred to the federal government.
That leaves Florida among 11 states that have made no decision.
At the end of the presentation, Negron allowed about 45 minutes for public comment. About a dozen people opposed to the law, calling it both unjust and constitutional, spoke during that time. Many said they were affiliated with tea party groups. Not one supporter of the law spoke up during the public comment period.
Toward the end of the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith decided to address the speakers who oppose the law. "It's hard to sit here and be silent and listen to some of this," he said as he launched into a mini history lesson.
Smith said the federal government has had to step in previously when the U.S. Constitution fell short, referencing school integration and even the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. "The federal government had to stand in because our Constitution is an imperfect document."
That riled up the tea partiers, who booed loudly as Smith tried to finish his statement, holding up the constitutional amendment process as proof that sometimes history proves controversial new laws right. Eventually, Negron stepped in to chastise the crowd for not showing Smith respect.