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‘It’s All About Hope’ -- and $51B

A lot of money - $200 million a month or $7 million a day – could be used to buy health coverage for Florida's poor. But it all could go to some other state, said advocates who held a Capitol press conference Wednesday with the message: “Take the Money!”

The money in question is the estimated $51 billion over 10 years that is sitting in Washington D.C., to be sent to Florida to buy health coverage for the poor. If Florida doesn’t take it, they said, it will go to some other state, said Dr. Mona Mangat of St. Petersburg, who drove a big blue bus with three other doctors and 15 navigators to Tallahassee for the event.

She said the state’s refusal to provide coverage for the poor means thousands of Floridians will suffer and die prematurely each year from illnesses that could have been caught with preventive care. Those patients are part of her practice, she said.

“I’m here pleading with state  leaders to expand access to health care,” said Mangat, national chairwoman of Doctors for America, an advocacy group. “If Florida fails to extend coverage, nearly 1 million people (in the state) will  be left with no coverage at all.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “Republicans and Democrats across the country are putting politics aside and doing the right thing for the people they serve.”

Indeed, as she spoke, health advocates in Arkansas were celebrating Tuesday’s House vote to accept federal funds for what they call the “private option.”  It passed by the needed 3-to-1 margin, and means Arkansas will take money from the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion program and use it to buy private-plan coverage for the uninsured.

Arkansas leaders call it the “private option” to avoid any reference to Medicaid or Obamacare,  hot-button words among Republicans there as in Florida.

As the Arkansas News reports, the private option is quite similar to the bill that Florida Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, sponsored in Florida last year. It got bipartisan support in the Senate, but Republican leaders in the Florida House blocked it.

Arkansas News quotes House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, as saying: “I’m proud of the members, I’m proud of everybody coming together. I think the story is about political courage.”

Political courage is what speakers at the Tallahassee press conference Wednesday want.  They didn’t name names, but they were clearly referring to House Speaker Will Weatherford and fellow Republicans, as Democrats in 2013 all were in favor of Negron's plan. Republicans in Florida have tried to avoid even talking about the issue this year, with an election coming in November.

There is an exception: Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. He has filed a bill (SB 710) that would accept the federal funds and use them  for an Arkansas-style private option.  A long-shot companion bill in the House (HB 869)  is sponsored  by Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey.

Murphy said at the press conference that she “jumped for  joy” when she learned there was a Republican senator willing to put his name on the bill.

Garcia knows it’s an uphill fight, but one he believes in “passionately.” Asked why he is optimistic when his colleagues are saying the bill won’t fly, Garcia pointed to his forehead, and a spot of ash to signify his aprticipation in Ash Wednesday worship.

 “It’s all about hope,” Garcia said.

He said the list of objections that House Speaker Will Weatherford has given for rejecting the money doesn't hold up. 

First, the federal government has promised to pay 100 percent of the cost of covering the low-income uninsured for three years, and 90 percent thereafter.  The amount available to Florida for the first decade has been estimated at $51 billion.

Weatherford and his lieutenants have said many times that they don’t believe the federal government will actually hold up its end of the bargain. Garcia said his bill has a sunset provision that would discontinue the program if the federal revenue didn’t come through.

“What more protection do you want?” Garcia asked. “Let’s protect the residents of this great state and give them affordable health coverage.”

House Republicans argue that federal spending is out of control and Florida shouldn’t add to the debt. Garcia said he could accept that argument if the money Florida is turning down would be applied to the debt, but it’s not.

“You know who that money is going to? Other states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania and the Northeast and California. Does that make sense?” Garcia asked. “Absolutely not, it does not make sense.”

The don’t-add-to-the-debt argument also doesn’t hold up when one looks at state leaders’ votes on other matters, Garcia said. They accept billions of dollars in federal funds each year for education and transportation, he said.

The League of Women Voters of Florida organized the press conference.  

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.