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AHCA: Error a ‘misunderstanding’

By Carol Gentry

8/19/2009 © Health News Florida

An erroneous report warning that health reform would bankrupt Florida Medicaid was the result of a misunderstanding, a spokeswoman for the Agency for Health Care Administration said today in an e-mail. 

The report, which ran in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel on Friday under the headline "Florida leaders warn health care reform could bankrupt Medicaid," said the already-struggling Florida Medicaid program would face an additional $1.6 billion in costs under the expansion. The article attributed the information to AHCA.

As Health News Florida noted on Monday, that report was incorrect. All the bills pending in Congress say the Medicaid expansion would cost states nothing until at least 2014, and after that Florida’s share of cost would be 10 percent, or around $430 million. 

The e-mail from the reporter who requested the information indicates AHCA was largely responsible for the mix-up. However, the agency has issued no apology.

The truth first appeared in a Twitter tweet on Friday from Tallahassee health consultant Brady Augustine, who followed it over the weekend with a column on his Weblog, headline: Are states entering the misinformation fray?

The Health News Florida story about the mix-up appeared Monday, citing the pertinent parts of the legislation so that readers could see for themselves. HNF asked AHCA for an explanation, but didn’t get one.

A consumer advocacy group, Florida CHAIN, then asked the newspapers to run a correction, according to policy director Greg Mellowe. That didn’t happen, but Sun-Sentinel reporter Josh Hafenbrack told HNF on Tuesday that he will do a follow-up story, probably Thursday.

Meanwhile Mark Hollis, a spokesman for Democrats in the State House, issued a press release that called the mix-up “fear-mongering” by “defenders of the status quo.”

“Governor Charlie Crist and AHCA officials should make certain that, in the future, the public, the press and state representatives get accurate assessments of any state costs under federal health legislation,” the release says.

This morning, AHCA spokeswoman Shelisha Durden sent HNF an e-mail saying that the cost figures sent to Hafenbrack – calculated based on the current one-third state share of Medicaid cost in the joint state-federal program – were created in May, before there were actual bills pending in Congress.

In all three House versions and the one so-far Senate version of America’s Affordable Health Choices Act that have emerged so far, the federal government covers 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion.

Durden’s e-mail said the misunderstanding apparently occurred between Hafenbrack and an AHCA official he interviewed; she didn’t name him, but the e-mail trail makes clear it was Chief of Staff Tom Arnold. 

Hafenbrack's e-mail says: "What I'm looking for is the report that Tom Arnold mentioned during our phone call yesterday, showing how many Medicaid beneficaries would be added to Florida's rolls and the cost under various health care proposals being debated in Washington."

Arnold has not been available for interviews this week. His spokeswoman says he thought he made it clear in the interview that the “report” Hafenbrack was requesting was calculated on old assumptions. AHCA sent it to the reporter because he requested it. 

Neither the “report” – really just a chart with numbers – nor the e-mail that went with it said anything about the cost figures being out of date.

Florida has a great deal at stake in the debate over whether Washington should act to assure that all Americans have access to health care, data show.

The state has nearly 4 million uninsured. Its rate of those who lack coverage – one in four under age 65 – is third-highest in the nation, according to recent reports based on Census figures.

And health costs in the state, especially South Florida, are some of the highest in the nation. 

--Contact Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.