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Anti-abortion fight, round 3

 By Gary Fineout
4/8/2009 © Health News Florida

For the third time in two years, a controversial state-funded program meant to steer women away from abortion has become a flashpoint in the state budget.
The Florida Senate’s version wipes out the $2 million set aside for the “crisis counseling” program, while the House’s keeps the funding intact.

The money goes to pregnancy support centers and billboard advertising for a  24-hour statewide hotline that gives women advice on alternatives to abortion. The program was started under former Gov. Jeb Bush, an abortion opponent.
The battle over the funding comes more than two months after an attempt to cut it. During a special session in  January, lawmakers voted to slash $574,528 from the anti-abortion program, but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that.

Crist at the time said the program provides “vital services” to help women “making decisions that will have profound long-term effects on them and their families.”
A House spending panel had once again targeted the program for a possible 10 percent to 15 percent cut, but Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, publicly announced Tuesday that he was ordered by House Republican leaders to keep intact the $2 million for the program. Zapata said he understood the “logic,” since Crist made it clear he wanted to spare the program from cuts.
 Zapata, who is chairman of the House budget panel that oversees spending by the Department of Health, also said that he had been heavily lobbied by fellow House members to keep the anti-abortion program intact.
“I have talked to at least a dozen members who have come up to me and said ‘This is very important, we want to maintain this funding, we don’t want to touch it,’’’ said Zapata. “I respect that.’’
But Democratic legislators, who have labeled the counseling program “political pork” in the past, continue to question why it should be spared any cuts when lawmakers are struggling to deal with a $6 billion budget shortfall. Part of the shortfall will be covered by roughly $3 billion from the federal stimulus package passed in February. While lawmakers have slashed millions from health care in the last two years, the counseling program has avoided any cuts.
“It may be a valuable thing to have in a community, but it’s not public health,’’ said Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton. “It is not something that government should be paying for. It wasn’t anything the government was paying for until Gov. Bush decided we should be paying for it. I don’t understand what the public purpose is.”
During the 2008 session the Senate tried to cut money to the program. But in the waning moments of the session, Senate Republicans relented to House Republicans who wanted to shield the program.
The “crisis counseling” funding is just one among many differences in the House and Senate health care budgets. The two chambers are now split over whether to privatize a state mental hospital in Macclenny. The House budget requires that the state  seek bids from private companies to take over Northeast Florida State Hospital by this fall, while the Senate budget keeps the hospital in state hands. Senate Republicans took out the privatization provision on Tuesday, setting up a showdown with House Republicans.
The Senate is also pushing ahead with a $1 per pack hike in the state’s cigarette tax that the House has not considered so far this session. The Senate relies on money from the tax hike, which would generate an estimated $874 million, to help fund Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor.
The House budget proposal keeps Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals and HMOs unchanged, while cutting nursing home and hospice rates by 2.5 percent. The Senate budget, by contrast, includes an across-the-board 3 percent cut to hospitals, nursing homes and HMOs. 

--Contact free-lance reporter Gary Fineout or editor Carol Gentry.