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Arnold vote: Policy or politics?

By Jim Saunders
4/14/2010 Health News Florida

When a Senate committee voted Tuesday not to confirm Tom Arnold as Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, the question started swirling in the Capitol: Was it because of policy or politics?

Senate Health Regulation Chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who voted against the confirmation, said his decision stemmed from the agency's handling of Medicaid fraud -- and had nothing to do with political clashes between legislative leaders and Arnold's boss, Gov. Charlie Crist.

"I interpret the vote today as a message of no confidence in this agency's efforts to control fraud and abuse in the Medicaid program,'' Gaetz said.

But Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat who voted for Arnold's confirmation, said he thinks the rejection was politically motivated and was meant to "send a message'' to Crist.

The governor has angered Republican legislative leaders by vetoing a bill to change campaign-finance rules --- and could be on the verge of vetoing a controversial education bill that includes reducing job protections for teachers.

"I think it was strictly political,'' Lawson said. "I thought it was very embarrassing to the secretary. The secretary hadn't done anything wrong.''

The 4-3 vote by the Health Regulation Committee, however, does not determine whether Arnold will keep his job. The vote is essentially a recommendation to the full Senate, which has final say. Also, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee is expected to make a recommendation about Arnold's confirmation.

Arnold, a longtime state health-care official who was appointed in October to replace Holly Benson, was not available for comment this afternoon but issued a statement through a spokeswoman.


"Of course I am disappointed by the vote of the committee today,'' Arnold said in the statement. "However, I remain focused on leading the important work of the Agency for Health Care Administration in promoting better health care for all Floridians."
Gaetz said senators question AHCA's efforts to carry out a sweeping bill that passed last year to combat Medicaid fraud, which by some estimates could cost as much as $2 billion a year. He said he also asked Arnold for a long-term strategic plan to deal with fraud but received a "process answer.''

"Two-billion dollar problem --- you need to know how you're going to solve it,'' Gaetz said.

Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, another committee member who voted against Arnold, also disputed that politics drove her decision. Sobel said she voted against the Republican-backed education bill that Crist might veto, so she has no reason to send a message to the governor.

"It is not (politically motivated),'' Sobel said. "I'm a Democrat. Why would it be a shot at the governor?''

But Lawson, the Senate Democratic leader, said the vote against Arnold was unnecessary. With a gubernatorial election in November, the incoming administration likely will choose a new AHCA secretary.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.