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Heat turned up on free coverage

By Gary Fineout
12/2/2009 © Health News Florida

State Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander says he'll push to end free health insurance for state officials next session. Now House budget chief David Rivera says "everything is on the table" in the search for savings, including the perk for nearly 27,500 state workers and lawmakers.

Alexander, the budget chief in the Florida Senate, floated the idea that state lawmakers and some state workers should start paying for their health insurance last session. It went nowhere.

But lawmakers' resistance may be hard to sustain in coming months as they confront the need for budget cuts and a looming deficit in the fund that pays for state workers' health insurance. The debate in Washington over the health system also serves as a constant reminder that millions of Floridians have no health coverage and that it's becoming increasingly unaffordable for those who do. 

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has already told Health News Florida that he plans to push again during the 2010 session to start charging premiums to all state workers. 

Rivera, R-Miami and the House budget chief, said today the state's ongoing financial woes will prompt legislators to look at all possible ways to save taxpayer money -- including the free coverage.

"We are going to look at all options to save money for the taxpayers of Florida,'' said Rivera. "Everything is on the table. We are looking at every opportunity for cost savings. There are no sacred cows."

Over the past week, several Florida newspapers have run editorials saying it's time to end the free coverage that about 27,500 state workers and elected officials enjoy. The subsidy is worth roughly $45 million. 

The renewed interest follows an article in Sunday's Miami Herald noting that Gov. Charlie Crist plans to add his wife Carole, a wealthy businesswoman, to the free plan. He also plans to enroll her two daughters, even though they live in New York.

The Herald also updated the number of state employees receiving free coverage who earn more than $100,000 a year: 2,431.
 
Health News Florida has written a series of stories about the free health insurance perk over the last two years.  

The free coverage for the GOP governor and Legislature stands in stark contrast to Republican criticism in Washington of the cost of covering the uninsured.

One of those who pays no premiums is Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who has filed a constitutional amendment to let Florida opt out of any federal health care proposal. He says he's willing to start paying for his health insurance.
 
The state employees who get free coverage, including nearly 1,700 legislators and legislative staff, are responsible for co-pays. Many of these employees consider this a job perk because they don’t have civil service protections. Married couples both working for the state also pay no premiums. 

Most of the 200,000 state workers and university employees do contribute toward the $1.8 billion cost of coverage for themselves and their families, but taxpayers account for most of it -- $1.35 billion. The cost to employees is $180 a month for family coverage and $50 a month for individual policies.

The state fund that pays the cost of health insurance for state workers faces a deficit of nearly $400 million by 2012. Between now and then legislators will have to decide whether to increase the subsidy from taxpayers, increase premiums, or find a way to cut costs in the program.