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Crist: Free coverage for officials OK

By Gary Fineout
10/1/2009 © Health News Florida

When it comes to providing health care to Florida’s nearly 4 million uninsured, Gov. Charlie Crist urges “no government mandates” and “no tax dollars involved.” 

But Crist himself gets free health insurance, which covers all the usual health services, courtesy of the taxpayers. So do members of the Cabinet, the Legislature and 26,000 state workers.

The governor, asked about the free coverage this week, said he sees no reason to change things.  “I think we have a good setup right now,’’ he said.

Crist is not the only statewide elected official getting free health insurance. So do Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, both of whom are multi-millionaires, according to 2008 financial disclosure forms.

Crist’s salary is around $130,000, and the other two earn nearly $129,000 a year. 

Sink, who is married to attorney Bill McBride, has only individual coverage under the state plan. Bronson takes the state’s family coverage, but an aide says Bronson’s wife is primarily covered under health insurance she receives as a retired federal employee. 

The only Cabinet member not on the free state plan is Attorney General Bill McCollum, but taxpayers provide his coverage as a retiree of Congress and the U.S. Naval Reserves, in addition to Medicare eligibility. An aide said she doesn’t know whether McCollum pays anything for health insurance.

Bills pending in both chambers of Congress – while differing in whether there would be a “public option” plan as a choice -- would all bar private insurers from denying coverage because of prior health conditions and would set some limits on extra charges for age.

McCollum, a Republican who is running against the Democrats’ Sink for governor in 2010, has been sharply critical of the health care proposals under consideration in Congress.

Following Pres. Obama’s speech to Congress on Sept. 9, McCollum issued a press release that said: “The health care plan that Washington Democrats and what I suspect my opponent Alex Sink supports will not work in its current form. As I have said before, these proposals will reduce the quality of care, limit choice and put our more than three million senior citizens in Florida at great risk."

In a separate release, McCollum said: “As a candidate for Governor, I believe it is critically important for Floridians to know where I stand on health care. I oppose any national health care legislation that includes a government-run public health care option as I believe it would result in fewer patient choices and a reduction in the quality of care.” 

Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010, has also criticized pending health reform proposals as “cockamamie.’’ While appearing on national television on Tuesday, he instead touted his own Cover Florida, which allows insurers to drop some of the mandated benefits usually required by law in the interest of lower price.

Companies offering plans through Cover Florida, which took effect in January, have signed up only about 4,000 people. Consumer groups say more Floridians than that have lost their coverage due to layoffs and employers dropping coverage during the same period. 

“I think Florida’s done it the right way,” Crist said Tuesday. "No government mandates. No tax dollars involved. I think it’s the right way to go. That’s what I believe.” 

Florida spent more than $1.6 billion in the past year to provide health coverage to nearly 200,000 state workers and university employees. Taxpayers picked up more than 90 percent of the cost, with employees contributing $156.7 million in premiums. 

As of July, more than 26,000 state employees – including state legislators - were paying no premiums at all, records show. Many of these employees receive free health insurance as a job perk because they don’t have civil service protections. But their pay averages more than that of rank-and-file employees. 

A review of salary data by Health News Florida earlier this year showed that more than 1,000 employees eligible for free insurance earn $100,000 a year or more. 

Meanwhile, the trust fund set up to pay for state employee health insurance is going broke. New estimates show that the fund will remain in the black until sometime during the state budget year that runs from July 2011 to June 2012. Projections show the deficit growing to $390 million by the summer of 2012 and then topping $600 million a year later. 

In order to cover the deficit state lawmakers would need to cut health care expenses, hike premiums, or increase the amount of state revenue used to subsidize coverage. 

--Gary Fineout is co-founder of TallahasseeReporters.com and has a blog called Fine Print.