Florida healthcare a ‘five-alarm fire’ says House Speaker José Oliva

Repealing state limitations on building new healthcare facilities, allowing prescription drugs to be imported from abroad and expanding telehealth options for patients.
Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva. [News Service of Florida]
Published March 5, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- Warning healthcare spending is a “five-alarm fire,” House Speaker José Oliva opened his first legislative session Tuesday by urging lawmakers to support a slate of priority bills that would substantially deregulate the healthcare market in a bid to curb the state’s costs.

The Miami Lakes Republican, in a brief speech, outlined his wish list of legislative priorities: among them repealing state limitations on building new healthcare facilities, allowing prescription drugs to be imported from abroad and expanding telehealth options for patients.

He also noted concerns about curbing higher education spending, pointing to what he called an “endless appetite of new construction,” and promised to elevate teacher pay. Oliva called for a pared-down budget that would still address ballooning costs from Hurricane Michael’s strike to the Panhandle last fall. Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a record $91.3 billion proposed budget, has called for $1.9 billion in state and federal funds for hurricane recovery.

Oliva challenged House members to exercise what he called the “courage” to pass his healthcare reforms for Floridians, saying “they have entrusted us and empowered us to remedy this crisis.”

“We must engage the consumer so that market forces can apply,” he told members.

Oliva gaveled in the ceremonies amid the pomp characteristic of session opening days: desks blooming with sunflowers and lilies, galleries packed with attendees and the press, a laundry list of introductions for former elected officials.

Current and former lawmakers — some of the latter now lobbyists for the most monied interests in the state — mingled on the floor ahead of Oliva’s remarks, which were delivered before DeSantis’ first official address to the Legislature.

Oliva has long signaled healthcare will be his signature issue, and Tuesday was no different. He chose Francis Salazar, a physician in Hollywood who appeared by teleconference, to be the chamber’s doctor of the day — in a nod to Oliva’s focus on telehealth — and deviated from prepared remarks to elaborate on various healthcare proposals winding through the House.

He warned healthcare poses a “great financial and human crisis looming” over the state. He accused pharmaceutical companies of “gouging Floridians every day,” and he urged lawmakers to support expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners in addition to expanding physicians’ ability to treat patients through telehealth.

And he returned to his favorite punching bag, “the healthcare industrial complex,” saying it receives federal, state, local and private money “and it is still not enough.”

Oliva also touched on what he deemed “great excesses” in higher education spending, tagging construction and more expensive administrative staff. It was a nod to findings that the University of Central Florida and others misused funds by spending operating dollars on new construction. The House Higher Education Appropriations committee has signaled it’s looking at the millions of dollars colleges and universities are allowed to rollover in their reserves each year as an area where they see fat to trim, which could cause conflict with the Senate.

Unmentioned among Oliva’s priorities were any bills addressing abortion. Though Oliva has said he believes life begins at conception, he has not made any bills major priorities. He apologized last week after referring to pregnant women as “host bodies” in an interview with CBS4 in Miami about the topic.

The new Speaker faces many of the challenges many House leaders have before him, leading a crowded and sometimes fractious chamber with a Democratic minority slowly advancing on the Republican bloc.

But he also has the benefit of taking office with a new governor at the reins: DeSantis and Oliva have already collaborated on some of the priorities on Oliva’s agenda — proposing the program that would allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada and endorsing a bill in both chambers that would give incentive to patients shopping for healthcare by reducing their premiums.

In some cases Oliva has sought to expand upon DeSantis’ proposals. In the case of his Canadian drug program, the House has also advanced language that would allow private companies to import prescription drugs directly from abroad.

Some of those proposals have raised concerns from the state Senate, but Oliva in his comments to the House cast his ideas as a “course correction that is currently necessary.”

“It is time for us to bring real reform,” he said.