TALLAHASSEE — Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday he will sue the federal government for allegedly coercing Florida to expand Medicaid.
"It is appalling that President (Barack) Obama would cut off federal health care dollars to Florida in an effort to force our state further into Obamacare," Scott said in a statement.
The legal maneuver, which comes amid a tense standoff between the House and Senate over Medicaid expansion, was simultaneously lauded and lambasted. It also complicates negotiations over this year's budget.
The agency targeted by the lawsuit — the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS — is still deciding whether to renew a $2.2 billion program called the Low Income Pool that helps Florida hospitals treat low-income patients. And if no LIP dollars are awarded, Florida could be looking at a $1.3 billion budget gap.
"From where I sit, it is difficult to understand how suing CMS on Day 45 of a 60-day session regarding an issue the state has been aware of for the last 12 months will yield a timely resolution to the critical health care challenges facing our state," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said.
The suit, which has yet to be filed, is only the latest round in an ongoing feud between Scott and CMS in connection with LIP.
The program is scheduled to expire in June under an agreement between Florida and the federal government. Federal health officials have said they are open to negotiating a successor program, but no deal has been reached.
The negotiations took a turn Tuesday, when CMS told Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration that any decision regarding LIP would be tied to whether the state accepts federal Medicaid expansion money — a politically charged policy option that Scott once supported, but now opposes.
Scott blasted CMS on Thursday, saying that linking the two issues violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling "that the president cannot force Medicaid expansion on states."
"Not only does President Obama's end to LIP funding in Florida violate the law by crossing the line into a coercion tactic for Obamacare, it also threatens poor families' access to the safety net health care services they need," Scott said.
He called the actions "outrageous and specifically what the Supreme Court warned against."
CMS declined to comment on the planned lawsuit. But spokesman Ben Wakana said Florida, like other states, "is free to implement Medicaid expansion or not."
Wakana pointed out that the LIP program had "long been scheduled to expire on June 30."
"Florida is requesting an additional optional extension, which raises a different question — whether it promotes the objectives of the Medicaid statute to use demonstration authority when the state has statutory options that would better serve the low-income population," he said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he hadn't seen the details of the lawsuit, but said expanding Medicaid would ensure that 800,000 Floridians get access to health care coverage.
"So there's not a good reason why anybody in Florida would be in a situation of trying to block a policy that would benefit 800,000 Floridians," he said.
In Tallahassee, Scott's announcement Thursday exposed the deepening divide between the House, which opposes expansion, and the Senate, which supports expansion and has proposed a plan to extend the LIP program.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said Scott was making an important point: "You can't force the state to take on Medicaid expansion."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he wasn't sure if the move was political posturing or if Scott had standing to bring the lawsuit.
"But if they think the federal government has stepped out of bounds, they've got an obligation to defend the state of Florida," he said.
Scott has repeatedly tangled with the federal courts when defending his policies or challenging the federal government.
Last year, Scott's Agency for Health Care Administration filed suit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, accusing the agency of providing substandard care to veterans after AHCA inspectors were denied access to federal VA hospitals.
The governor also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his appeal of a 2013 federal court ruling that he issued an unconstitutional executive order in 2011 that allowed "suspicionless" drug testing of state workers. The nation's high court declined to hear the case.
In February, Scott dropped the state's appeal of a federal court order that Florida illegally began a statewide "purge" of suspected noncitizens from the voter rolls less than 90 days before an election.
The latest threat of legal action drew a collective groan among Democrats, who called the case "ridiculous."
"It's more of the same from the governor," said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach. "It's a corporate reaction: We sue people. The sad thing is it is going to cost the taxpayers."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Scott was "not playing it straight."
"The state of Florida has known for a year that LIP funding is expiring, and this hypocritical stunt by Gov. Scott will do nothing to serve our neighbors, Florida hospitals or Florida businesses," she said.
McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @kmcgrory.