Lawmakers, advocates lobby for Medicaid expansion

By By KELLI KENNEDY

MIAMI (AP) — Health advocates and a few lawmakers spent the week in Tallahassee rallying the Legislature to expand Medicaid coverage to roughly 1 million Floridians after panels in both chambers rejected traditional Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

A House committee first rejected expansion, calling Medicaid a broken program and citing fears the federal government would not live up to its promise to fund 100 percent of the program for the first three years and 90 percent after that. A Senate committee also shot down straight Medicaid expansion Monday.

Sen. Joe Negron suggested a voucher system for the new Medicaid recipients modeled after the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation, which helps low-income parents select private health plans for their children. Parents pay premiums and co-pays based on their income. The state may offer money to help families pay part of the premiums.

It's not clear whether Negron's plan would win federal approval, but he said it's important that recipients are empowered and take ownership in their health care.

The same House panel appears to be drafting a proposal requiring recipients to purchase insurance from private plans. It may rely on state dollars instead of federal funding, but details are still being hammered out. Gov. Rick Scott, who favors Medicaid expansion, signaled he's open to alternatives.

Democrats initially praised the Senate proposal, saying Republicans can call the plan whatever they want as long as it draws down the estimated $51 billion over a decade from the federal government and expands coverage to more residents. The state's share would be nearly $5.5 billion.

On Friday, House Democratic leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, urged lawmakers to extend meaningful, quality coverage to people whose income is up to 138 percent of the poverty line. They also stressed cost-sharing measures must be nominal so they don't become a barrier to block or discourage access to necessary health care.

"There are major opportunities to expand health coverage for working Floridians, and we cannot afford to wait when it comes to saving lives," Thurston said at a news conference in Tallahassee.

Florida CHAIN, Health Care for Florida Now and other advocates on Thursday delivered 15,000 petitions supporting Medicaid expansion to the offices of Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Hospital executives held a rally Tuesday urging Medicaid expansion. Hospitals will be hit doubly hard if the state declines to expand Medicaid because the federal funding streams that hospitals rely on to pay for uninsured patients will end. They estimate expansion, by contrast, would create about 54,000 new jobs.

Republican Rep. Mike Fasano criticized fellow Republicans at several rallies this week for being too afraid of far right-wing constituents to make a sensible decision.

"They don't want to expand Medicaid. It's going to cost money but they'll take money away from teachers, our transportation, our senior citizens and public safety for something they could do at no cost to the taxpayers," Fasano said Friday.

The New Port Richey Republican said his office is weekly bombarded with calls from constituents with no access to health care, especially working, single women who are too young to qualify for Medicare.

"It's so irrational. We are a donor state," said Fasano, who said Florida taxpayers are not getting the money back they are paying into for health care, transportation and education.

"They just believe this would be so unlike the Republican Party. Baloney. Ronald Reagan, if he were alive today, would say this is right for our state."

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