Fla. Dems vow Medicaid expansion fight is not over

Published On: Jun 26 2013 12:46:26 PM EDT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston and a delegation of Broward County Democrats voted Tuesday night to pen another letter to Gov. Rick Scott demanding he call a special session to discuss expanding Medicaid coverage to 1.1 million residents, promising constituents they would not just let the issue quietly die.

"We need to let it be known that we will not tolerate this...we've missed an opportunity but the opportunity has not slipped through our fingers yet," Thurston told a packed room full of a few hundred residents and activists. "It's time to act. It's time to act decisively and the time is now."

Florida lawmakers ended their Legislative session last month without reaching an agreement on Medicaid expansion and passed up more than $50 billion in federal funds under the Affordable Care Act.

In an unusual alliance, Scott, Senate Republicans, Democrats, Florida hospitals, health advocates and a diverse mix of business and labor groups all supported a Senate proposal that would have taken the federal money and allowed Floridians to purchase private insurance. But leaders in the GOP-led Florida House refused to consider that proposal, saying they didn't want to take funds tied to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Scott, who started his political career buying political ads criticizing the so-called "Obamacare," made an about-face decision earlier this year when he expressed his support for Medicaid expansion, calling it the compassionate, commonsense step.

But Sen. Chris Smith said the governor "did not do a thing to help" pass Medicaid expansion.

"When it came to manufacturing tax that he wanted on his plan he walked the halls....he even pulled his staff from the capitol until they did the teacher's salary and the manufacturing tax, but the health care expansion was not part of his priority. He paid lip service to it," Smith said.

Thurston and the Florida House Democratic Caucus sent a letter to Scott shortly after the session ended in May, asking that he convene a special session to discuss Medicaid. But Smith said they never heard back from the governor.

Committee week starts in Tallahassee in September and Smith said they would also push then for a special session.

But a special session seems unlikely as House Speaker Will Weather and fellow House GOP leaders have signaled little urgency in reaching a decision. After the session ended, Weatherford said it was more important to get it right, than to get it done quickly. Without serious pressure from the governor or the hospital associations, which stand to lose millions, the issue seems all but dead.

"Unless the House is going to make a change in their decisions it wouldn't make sense to have a special session," Scott told reporters last month.

Tuesday's town hall, which became rowdy at times as advocates bickered across the aisle, went late into the night as residents lined up to tell their stories. Several advocates repeatedly passed out phone numbers to Scott's office and a number they claimed was Weatherford's cell phone and urged them to call the next morning and demand a special session. The union group SEIU made a strong showing with some members holding posters and wearing T-shirts supporting Medicaid expansion outside the building.

Victoria Lofters, an uninsured 21-year-old college student who also works a minimum wage job, said she got sick during her junior year and racked up nearly $20,000 in medical bills.

"I am one of those 1.1 million," she said. "Medicaid expansion makes sense because it helps people like me."

Dr. David Perloff, a local cardiologist who cares for indigent patients once a week, said he was terrified by stories from recent patients who did not have health insurance, including a post-op visit for a patient that wasn't scheduled until 14 months after the surgery.

Robert Ettinger, a former health care executive with an MBA who was laid off in 2011 and can't afford his Cobra health insurance, said it took six weeks to find a physician to do a biopsy when he found a lump in his neck because he lacked insurance and another six weeks to find a surgeon to treat it.

The Obama administration has sought to offer health insurance to more Americans by extending the Medicaid eligibility levels to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level and has tried to entice state participation by offering to foot the entire costs for the first three years and roughly 90 percent after that.

Edward Bender praised the Legislature for not expanding Medicaid, drawing angry boos from the crowd.

"The Florida Legislature did what was right. They were fiscally responsible," he said.

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