Editorial: On Medicaid, family facts and fantasies

House speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel
House speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel
Published March 6, 2013

Let's get this straight. House Speaker Will Weatherford opposes accepting billions in federal dollars to expand Medicaid and recalls that his family relied on a safety net to pay hospital bills for his brother — and that safety net turned out to be Medicaid. This is hypocritical at best, and Floridians expect more truthfulness and compassion from their elected leaders.

The debate over expanding Medicaid in Florida is wrapped in remembering family roots and adapting to change. Gov. Rick Scott has been surprisingly adept at both and Weatherford has been disappointingly unsuccessful. Yet Scott is being vilified for endorsing the Medicaid expansion by the most conservative Republican voters while Weatherford is sure to be praised at the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual meeting next week in Washington. The contrasts reflect the Republican Party's turmoil since its election losses, and Floridians are caught in the middle.

Weatherford, at 33 years old the state's second-youngest speaker in modern history, could not be off to a worse start. In an arrogant power play, a select House committee voted along party lines Monday to not even draft legislation to allow the Medicaid expansion. On the legislative session's opening day on Tuesday, Weatherford delivered a hard-edged speech laced with code words like "freedom" and "social experiment" as he ripped the federal government and Medicaid expansion. He recounted how his uninsured family could not afford the medical bills for his 13-month-old brother, who died of cancer in 1995.

"It was the safety net that picked my father up,'' said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "It was the safety net that picked my family up.''

That safety net, his father later told the Tampa Bay Times, was Medicaid. So much for a lawmaker's personal experience smartly influencing public policy.

Scott recounts his family's modest background and his mother's efforts to get health care for his younger brother to explain his endorsement of the Medicaid expansion. It is no coincidence that the governor changed his position hours after the Obama administration granted Florida permission to move Medicaid patients into private managed care networks — which Weatherford indirectly derided as the administration's attempt "to buy off states one by one.'' But the governor, a former health care executive and outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act, also looked at the numbers. He correctly concluded it would be foolish to reject billions in federal dollars to provide health coverage to roughly 1 million uninsured Floridians.

In some respects, Scott and Weatherford have traded places. The tea party governor and political outsider acknowledges the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama was re-elected. Scott has adjusted to the changing landscape. Weatherford, the Tallahassee insider praised for his openness to compromise, has not.

Weatherford acknowledged Wednesday his father is right and that his brother qualified for a Medicaid program, Medically Needy. But his logic is still wrong in defending the safety net for children but denying its expansion to more Floridians. He also is wrong when he says Medicaid expansion supporters see the federal dollars as "free money.'' It's taxpayer money, and Floridians certainly pay more than their fair share of federal taxes.

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There is still time to get this right. Scott and Senate Republicans should demonstrate how Medicaid expansion adds up for Florida, creates jobs and produces a healthier workforce. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries should endorse it as smart business. And if Weatherford is sincere about improving the safety net and has a better solution, he should produce it now — and get his facts straight before he tells any more family stories.