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Harrison voted his conscience, not party, on health insurance

By Joe Henderson
Published: June 10, 2015

State Rep. Shawn Harrison of New Tampa is reliably Republican, standing for traditional conservative ideals.

He wants to keep government out of our lives as much as possible. He believes in lower taxes, job creation and state funding for some faith-based initiatives. On those points, he isn’t any different than the other four GOP state representatives from Hillsborough County.

He did stray from the pack on one important point, though. He was one of four House Republicans statewide — and the only one from Hills­borough — to vote in favor of the Senate plan to expand health care coverage for the state’s neediest people.

Predictably, the Republican House majority prevailed by a 72-41 vote, effectively dooming more than 800,000 uninsured Floridians to continue living without coverage. That makes Harrison’s vote especially noteworthy, since Republican House opposition to anything that smacks of health care expansion has been well documented.

“The Senate proposal would have benefited constituents in my district, particularly those around USF,” he said. “I just represent a different district than some of my other colleagues.”

His vote wasn’t a surprise. He signaled his support last month for expansion in a letter published in The Tampa Tribune. OK, so his support was tepid. In his letter, he noted “all of us view the Senate plan in its current format with trepidation, and rightly so.”

Some of his colleagues had more trepidation than others. At least Harrison was willing to look at the Senate plan as a starting point, which is more than most House Republicans were willing to do. The debate, if you want to call it that, had its share of typical hyperbole — charges that it was just another entitlement program for able-bodied Floridians seeking to mooch off the state.

That type of nonsense reinforces the image of Republicans as the party of mean people, indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate. I asked Harrison if that is fair.

“No, it’s not fair,” he said firmly. “There is not a single member of the House of Representatives — Republican or Democrat — who doesn’t care about providing health care for people in need.”

I understand why he would say that. I just don’t agree, based on a lot of the rhetoric from opponents. For many Republicans, any sort of statewide coverage smacks of Obamacare. Even Harrison said he was concerned that expanding health coverage could add to the national debt.

The tongues of many Republicans would catch fire before they could vote yes on anything like that, but the reverse side is the portrait of the state’s low-income people being denied coverage. Is there a way to bridge that ideological divide?

“I think there are some interesting ideas,” Harrison said. “We should look to our own backyard, for instance. Hillsborough County has a great indigent health care model.”

It’s true. Hillsborough HealthCare is provided to low-income residents who don’t have any other coverage. It’s not a giveaway program; it is a helping hand to those who would otherwise go without, providing both inpatient and outpatient services, prescriptions, and so on.

This debate has exposed the ugly underside for some of the people voters sent to Tallahassee. There are Floridians working two or three of Rick Scott’s $10-per-hour jobs just to keep the lights on. Those jobs don’t have benefits. Their best medical plan is to not get sick.

Shawn Harrison at least took that into account for the people of the district he represents. He tried to find a way to help, even if meant bucking the party line. There is a solution beyond just saying no. Lawmakers just have to care enough to find it. Right now, too many of them don’t seem to do that.