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Tampa’s Castor pushes for federal program to cover those in the ‘Medicaid gap’

A dozen states, including Florida, have refused to expand the health care program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was the lead signer of a letter last week, urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to establish a federal program to cover individuals and families in the “Medicaid gap.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was the lead signer of a letter last week, urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to establish a federal program to cover individuals and families in the “Medicaid gap.” [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 7
Updated Aug. 7

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is taking a lead in Congress in pushing legislation that would expand Medicaid in the dozen states, including Florida, that have refused to expand the health care program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act.

Castor was the lead signer of a letter last week from 34 House members, all from states that have refused Medicaid expansion, urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to establish a federal program to cover individuals and families in the “Medicaid gap.”

That is an ironic loophole in the coverage provided by the health care law, also known as Obamacare, affecting people who, in effect, don’t make enough money to qualify for subsidized coverage.

Those individuals and families make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid, which is usually limited to those well below the poverty line. But they don’t make enough to use the tax credits provided to subsidize insurance coverage under Obamacare — 100 to 400 percent of the poverty level.

Obamacare originally provided for expanding Medicaid to cover the gap, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it had to be optional for the states.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws expanding Medicaid, with most of the cost paid for by the federal government. But in Florida, the Republican-dominated Legislature has refused year after year.

In a conference call this week joined by health care advocates and one such individual, Castor said there were an estimated 850,000 to 1 million Floridians in that gap.

“Inexplicably,” Castor said, “Florida has scoffed at this,” costing the state billions in federal subsidies to cover most of the cost.

Castor and the other legislators, including several Florida Democrats, are pushing a Senate bill to set up a separate federal program covering the gap.

“This does not have to be a partisan issue,” said state Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa, on the call with Castor. “Let’s put our ideologies aside and listen to our constituents.”

Also on the call was Christina Germaine of Manatee County, who recounted an arduous, years-long struggle to get treatment, surgeries and medical supplies after suffering a perforated appendix, depending on support groups and local health care programs.

“This would never have happened,” Germaine said, if she’d had health insurance coverage to get the problem taken care of before it became critical.

AIF: Local Republicans are “business champions,” Dems not

Associated Industries of Florida, the state’s premier big business lobbying group, has released its 2021 ranking of Florida legislators, naming three Tampa Bay area representatives as its top “champions for business” and several other local legislators near the bottom.

Not surprisingly, at the top of the list were Republicans and those at the bottom Democrats.

Included near the top were Senate President Wilton Simpson of Trilby and House Speaker Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, plus Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Rep. Lawrence McClure of Dover.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Simpson was second and Brandes sixth among the 40 senators in AIF’s ranking; Sprowls and McClure were in the top 40 in the 120-member House.

At the other end of the rankings, Democratic Reps. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg and Fentrice Driskell and Susan Valdes of Tampa were in the bottom six among the 120 House members. Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, was 35th and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg was 36th among the 40 senators.

Diamond, who’s leaving his House seat to run for the South Pinellas District 13 congressional seat, ranked second from the bottom in the House.

State Rep. Ben Diamond
State Rep. Ben Diamond [ Provided ]

“All I can say is I have a record in the Legislature of standing up to be a champion for Florida families, working people and the environment,” Diamond said. “Those are the values I bring to my work and I’m going to keep fighting for them.”

Diamond said some of the bills he opposed that were backed by AIF “were not written in a way to bring people together and get bipartisan support,” but were “written by lobbyists.” He cited legislation to protect nursing homes from being sued over Covid 19, sponsored by McClure and Brandes, which was part of the AIF rankings.

“There was a way to write that bill that would have been acceptable,” Diamond said. Instead, he said, “It took nursing homes totally off the hook for anything that may have gone wrong, even if it was an intentional bad act.”

AIF President Tom Feeney said the organization and its rankings work on behalf of businesses “to support policies that will help our state continue to thrive and fighting back against those that will negatively impact Florida’s job creators and economy.”

AIF’s political action committee is heavily supported by large political contributions from the state’s biggest corporations in the utilities, sugar, tourism and insurance industries.

Anonymous accusation roils Temple Terrace council

An anonymous accusation against City Manager Charles Stephenson of falsifying city documents roiled a Temple Terrace City Council meeting this week and sparked an investigation under Mayor Andy Ross.

Charles Stephenson is city manager of Temple Terrace.
Charles Stephenson is city manager of Temple Terrace. [ City of Temple Terrace ]

The accusation came in documents including city records presented unexpectedly during the meeting by council member Meredith Abel, who said she received them from an anonymous source.

The material claimed that earlier this year, Stephenson falsified records to conceal award of a contract for work on a racquetball court at the city’s Family Recreation Complex to an unlicensed contractor.

In a video of the meeting, Stephenson appeared angry and defiant at the accusation, but on the advice of Ross didn’t respond publicly. Stephenson left the meeting and didn’t respond to messages later asking for comment.

Other council members appeared shocked.

“Thanks for giving me a heart attack,” council member Cheri Donohue remarked.

Temple Terrace City Council member Meredith Abel
Temple Terrace City Council member Meredith Abel [ City of Temple Terrace ]

Abel said she was sorry to “spring this information on you in this format,” but said she couldn’t discuss it with the council beforehand because of open government laws.

The council voted unanimously to authorize Ross, a former career law enforcement officer, to begin an investigation, which he said would be done by an outside party. He didn’t say who, and also didn’t respond to messages for comment later.

The council voted 3-2 against a motion to suspend Stephenson with pay after Ross argued that would “create the impression of guilt,” unwarranted with an anonymous complaint.

“On the face of it, we don’t have a credible complainant,” he said.

Details were sparse. Although the documents Abel presented were read into the council’s record and included copies of long-public city records, city Clerk Cheryl Mooney refused to release them after the meeting, saying they were the subject of an investigation. She said she didn’t know who was investigating.