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In health care fight, Trump puts national spotlight on Rick Scott — and his Medicare fraud scandal

Trump said Scott would put together ‘something really spectacular’ to replace Obamacare.

President Donald Trump thrust Sen. Rick Scott into the center of his renewed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act by suggesting the Florida Republican would help craft the GOP’s long-awaited replacement plan.

“They are going to come up with something really spectacular,” Trump recently told reporters, referring to what Scott and fellow Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana would produce.

But in naming Scott, Trump inadvertently returned the national spotlight to a scandal that has dogged the former health care executive’s entire political career.

Scott resigned in 1997 as CEO of Columbia/HCA, one of the country’s largest hospital networks, amid a federal investigation. Later, the company he helped found was fined $1.7 billion by the Department of Justice for defrauding Medicare and other government health care programs. At the time, it was the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history. While the investigation’s findings covered Scott’s time at the company, he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Floridians are well-versed in the case. It came up often during Scott’s two bids for governor and in last year’s U.S. Senate race. After Trump’s comments last week, a controversy once contained to Florida spread from coast to coast.

“Rick Scott’s Company Committed Historic Medicare Fraud. He Will Now Lead Trump’s Health-Care Push," flashed a New York Magazine headline.

“Trump putting Rick Scott in charge of his healthcare push is a sick joke,” read another headline on a scathing column from Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik.

Barrasso and Cassidy didn’t trigger that kind of backlash. Three months into his new U.S. Senate gig, Scott is drawing steady fire from Democrats.

“This is the guy whose company stole a billion dollars from Medicare,” former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean tweeted. “Would you believe anything he said?”

For the past nine years, these attacks slid off Scott as if he were Teflon. In the elections of 2010, 2014 and in 2018, he thwarted millions of dollars in ads about the fraud case with a hyper-disciplined message backed by his own personal wealth. He spent about $150 million of his fortune during his three races, emerging victorious — by the thinnest of margins — in each.

Scott has shrugged off the fraud allegations as tied to actions of people underneath him. In his role as Trump’s health care savior, he’s leaning into his experience at Columbia/HCA.

“I ran the largest hospital company,” said Sunday during a appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation. “I care about the cost of health care and that’s what I’ve focused on.”

Scott has always appeared in lockstep with Trump on wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s landmark legislative accomplishment Even before he ran for governor, he launched a political group to fight Obama’s reforms. In 2011, Scott championed Florida’s lawsuit to overturn Obamacare and undermined efforts to expand Medicaid under the law, denying millions of low-income Floridians health care.

Two years ago while still governor, Scott boasted he was working with Trump and his cabinet to help write the GOP alternative to Obamacare.

Now that he is in Washington, Scott said the White House, not his Senate office, would come up with the package.

“I look forward to, you know, to seeing what the president’s going to put out,” Scott said, who added he prefers smaller changes to the health care law.

Scott introduced part of that piecemeal approach Tuesday in a bill that will require drug companies to charge U.S. customers the same prices as Canadian and European consumers. Again, he credited his time as a hospital executive for inspiring the idea.

The proposal is far less than what Trump has promised will come from Republicans. That plan, so far, is an unspecified overhaul of health care laws that would lower insurance rates and deductibles while maintaining the popular protections of the Affordable Care Act, including for people with pre-existing conditions. Trump is cheering on a federal lawsuit from states, including Florida, that would eliminate the popular Obamacare protections.

Asked in a Tuesday press conference if he was surprised that Trump picked him to make that health care vision a reality, Scott said, “I talk to the president a lot.”

“I called him last week to talk about a couple other issues,” Scott said. “He brought up the fact that he’d like me to focus on this and I told him what I was working on was prescription drug prices. I don’t know about being caught off guard.”

Trump himself seems to have backed away from the overhaul. He tweeted Monday night that Republicans would come up with a new health care plan — but not until after next year’s election.

“Repeal and replace” can wait.