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Senate Panel Passes 2 Medicaid Plans: 1 Big, 1 'Teeny Weeny'

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Two more different health plans for low-income people could hardly be imagined. But the Senate Appropriations Committee for Health and Human Services adopted both of them, to keep the Senate's options open in dealing with the House.

House Republican leaders have refused to consider accepting any federal funds, even though an estimated $51 billion over a decade is available for the asking. They don't consider the federal commitment reliable, and said only state money should be used.

The first plan the Senate committee passed Wednesday -- the one that had bipartisan enthusiasm  -- was Sen. Joe Negron's Healthy Florida, which would accept federal funds to cover more than 1 million Floridians with private health insurance.

Negron offered an amendment on Wednesday intended as an olive branch to the Florida House, but it's a small one:  It would spend some state money, about $10 million, to help the Healthy Kids program ramp up in preparation to enroll the uninsured who would be covered -- an estimated 450,000 the first year.

"This is a supreme example of a public-private partnership," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. "This is the best return on investment that Florida citizens can achieve."

"I would urge you to stand firm, because what you're doing is in the best interests of citizens of Florida," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. "Thank you for your courage."

The Negron plan also found favor with Republicans. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, described it as a  "game-changer."

Apparently referring to the House, where the leadership has drawn a line in the sand at accepting federal funds for anything to do with the Affordable Care Act, Thrasher said it's more important to meet the needs of working uninsured citizens than to play politics.

He said lawmakers should ask themselves: "Can we be compassionate for our fellow citizens?"

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, applauded Negron as well as Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, who has a smaller alternative plan, for focusing on the big picture.  Lee said this is one of the most important issues of the year.

"It would be easy to throw in the towel right now," he said, given the House's stand against taking federal funds, "but I really appreciate your willingness to see this through."

SB 1815 passed just after noon unanimously.

Next up was the plan by Sen. Bean. It would put up $15 million in state funds to provide limited coverage for about 130,000. That $2,000 a year would barely cover a plan with deductibles and co-pays so high that those who qualify for it -- below the poverty level -- wouldn't be able to pay them, .

Bean said his plan is needed because the House "hasn't shown an interest in taking federal funds."

Bean joked about Health News Florida's moniker for his proposal, the "Teeny Weeny Bean Plan." He said he knew it wasn't perfect, but it might be the last hope, he said.

"The choice is do we do something, or do we do nothing?" Bean asked.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said it hardly makes any difference. "It seems to be cheaper, but that's because it doesn't do anything," she said. "It's like buying four flat tires and expecting the car to go."

"It may send mixed message to send two bills out of here," cautioned Montford. "It's like trying to take two dates to the prom. Where I come from, you don't do that."

Bean asked fellow committee members to "take two dates to the prom." The committee adopted his plan, as well, but by a 6-to-4 vote, with Democrats dissenting.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.