On the most consequential matter before the Legislature this session — the one affecting the health and wellbeing of nearly 1 million Floridians — state lawmakers appear to have failed miserably.
Put the blame squarely on House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel who put his notion of conservative politics ahead of common sense.
In doing so, he acted more like a political opopportunist than a statesman. Refusing $51 billion from the federal government might score points with some voters, but it does nothing for Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott. Senate President Don Gaetz. Industry associations. Chambers of commerce. Hospital operators. None of these people or groups will ever be described as bastions of liberalism. Yet they recognized the need to accept the money and make the best deal possible for Florida when faced with the Medicaid expansion requirements spelled out in Obamacare.
It didn’t matter to Weatherford, who kept the House from accepting reasonable compromises fashioned by the governor and the Senate to keep costs under control.
The Senate plan would have enabled the poor not covered by Medicaid to choose a private health insurance plan and pay a modest monthly premium and co-pays. The state would have subsidized the remaining costs, using federal dollars. For the first three years, 100 percent of the costs would have been covered by the federal government. It would have gone a long way toward reducing uncompensated care, a huge contributor to rising health-care costs. Federal officials appeared ready to accept the plan.
By comparison, the House plan supported by Weatherford would have used $237 million a year in state tax dollars to cover a fraction of the estimated 4 million uninsured people in Florida. It would have added to the state’s tax burden. It would have done nothing to reduce the $3 billion in uncompensated care provided to the uninsured each year.
Refusing the federal money means the taxes Floridians pay to fund Medicaid will be sent to other states.
As Gov. Scott succinctly put it, “The House’s plan will cost taxpayers on top of what they are already taxed.” In other words, it’s not something a fiscal conservative should support.
The governor is not completely blameless. After showing leadership by agreeing to accept the federal money — with safeguards — in the interest of all Floridians, he fell mostly silent as the Legislature moved toward an inevitable deadlock.
We wish he would have put the full weight of his office behind the compromise effort, particularly when the Senate came up with an alternative that used conservative strategies.
The Democrats didn’t help matters by inviting the politically divisive U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to publicly shame the House Republicans. She called them “spoiled children.” Is it any wonder the public holds Congress in such low regard?
With the session ending, lawmakers have few options on what to do about health care for the state’s poorest residents.
Waiting for next year is hardly a solution. By then, as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce pointed out in a letter to Weatherford, “Floridians will lose access to over a billion dollars in taxes that could otherwise be returned to the state.”
But barring a legislative miracle, a session that started with great promise likely will be viewed as one that squandered a billion dollars to make a political statement.