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  1. Health

House members say yes to cheap health insurance — for themselves

Leaders of the Florida House of Representatives made it clear they didn’t want federal money to expand Medicaid in the state.
Leaders of the Florida House of Representatives made it clear they didn’t want federal money to expand Medicaid in the state.
Published May 14, 2013

TALLAHASSEE

Florida House Republicans last month loudly and proudly rejected billions of dollars in federal money that would have provided health insurance to 1 million poor Floridians.

Quietly, they kept their own health insurance premiums staggeringly low. House members will pay just $8.34 a month for state-subsidized health care next year, or $30 a month to cover their entire family.

That's one-sixth of what state senators and most state employees will pay, and one-tenth of the cost to the average private-sector worker, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It's also less than the $25 a month House Republicans wanted to charge poor Floridians for basic coverage such as a limited number of doctor visits or preventive care.

House Republicans, including Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, would not say why the House did not raise its premiums to match the Senate. The premium increase was also part of Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget.

In a statement Monday, Weatherford said: "We are aware of the differences in what House members pay compared to other state employees for health insurance and are looking forward to addressing it next session."

The discrepancy, even if it's addressed, doesn't diminish the awkwardness of House lawmakers accepting cheap, subsidized health insurance for themselves while effectively saying no to health care for others.

"I don't think there is a defense of that. I think its pretty unconscionable," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the left-leaning Florida Center for Economic and Fiscal Policy. "And then to turn around and the leadership to say the reason 1 million people aren't accessing taxpayer-funded health care is they don't want to use taxpayer dollars is very disingenuous."

Eleven of Tampa Bay's 13 Republicans voted against accepting federal Medicaid money and are receiving state-subsidized health care. Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, voted against taking federal money but does not participate in the state health care plan. Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has the state health care plan but wanted the state to take the federal money. The area's House Democrats receive subsidized health care but voted to accept federal money.

The topic of Medicaid expansion — or what Florida should do as an alternative — took center stage throughout the legislative session. But there was hardly any focus on what lawmakers pay for their own coverage.

The state heavily subsidizes the costs of providing insurance to all full-time employees.

But 24,000 supervisors and managers, including lawmakers, get the best deal.

While the House remains in that category, senators in 2012 agreed to increase their premiums to match the bulk of the state workforce.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, insisted on the change, saying it wasn't fair for senators to pay less than low-level state workers. Senators now pay $50 a month for health insurance, or $180 a month for their families.

"I think the public expects the state Senate to be treated the same as our fellow co-workers in state government and not be given preferential status," Negron said Monday.

House members, who earn $29,697 a year for what is considered part-time work, get the same coverage as other state workers, just at a lower up-front cost.

The state health plan has several options, including a standard Blue Cross and Blue Shield policy or HMOs that vary by county.

Taxpayers pay nearly $600 a month to cover each individual House member, according to the state. With the HMO, members have no deductible and pay $20 to see a doctor or $40 for a speciality.

Contrast that with what House members proposed for parents and disabled adults, who made less than $11,490 a year. In addition to a $25 a month premium, the state would contribute $2,000 each year.

The combined $2,300 could be used for whatever coverage someone could afford, most likely short-term policies with high deductibles and limited coverage.

"They would pay three times as much and not even get something that is one-third as good," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who argued on the House floor that the inequity was hypocritical.

All but 12 House members take advantage of the state health insurance plan. Waldman says members have defended it as part of the benefits package for a demanding job.

That may be true, he said, but "you can't take that compensation and turn a blind eye to the 1 million who are uninsured in the state of Florida."

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and the architect of the House plan, said the amount House members pay each month should not be the focus of the discussion. Calls to other local Republicans, including Reps. Kathleen Peters, Ross Spano and Dana Young, were not returned.

"I think the entire state health care system is broken, and what we tried to do is try to fix it," Corcoran said, noting that conservatives have called his proposal a national model. "When you do that, everybody is going to be treated equally and fairly."

Contact Tia Mitchell at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

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