Amid growing budget discord that could derail this year's session of the Florida Legislature, Senate President Andy Gardiner dispatched two top Republican senators to Washington to talk with federal officials about more than $1 billion in health care grants the state could soon lose.
Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who works for a hospital, took the unusual step even as top officials with the administration of Gov. Rick Scott are directly negotiating with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Obama administration.
Tuesday's visit by Sens. Rene Garcia of Hialeah and Garrett Richter of Naples comes as the House and Senate are prepared to vote this week on sharply divergent budgets that are more than $4 billion apart.
That's because the Senate assumes that Florida will get billions in federal aid, including money the state could receive if it expands health care coverage to about 800,000 Floridians who are now ineligible.
The Senate has proposed accepting federal aid linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul even though House Republicans have been adamantly opposed. That extra money could also help hospitals.
But federal officials have repeatedly emphasized that it would not renew a program where Florida receives extra money for its hospitals that treat the poor and uninsured. The uncertainty about whether the feds might renew the hospital funding — called the "low income pool"— in another form has left lawmakers in limbo.
Gardiner insisted that senators weren't bypassing the Scott administration and said they were "not negotiating anything" with the federal government. But he said that, with time running out in this year's session, talking directly with federal officials was the "prudent thing to do."
"If we're going to ask members to make a tough decision on some things, I want as much information as I can to give to senators," Gardiner said. "I just sort of feel like I want to send a couple of senators that I trust and hear what they have to say."
Federal officials did not immediately return an email seeking comment Tuesday, but have stressed that the funding for the program in its current form ends June 30.
Scott's office did not directly comment on the senators' trip. Spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the governor was focused on other issues this session, adding "we are confident the federal government will not end the federal LIP program they run to help low-income people access health care."
Gardiner and other Senate leaders have warned that they would not approve a budget that results in large cuts to the state's hospitals. They also suggested that Scott's tax cut package could also be in jeopardy. When Scott proposed nearly $700 million in tax cuts, he assumed Florida would not lose the extra federal money for hospitals.
Liz Dudek, the secretary for Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, said Tuesday that the Scott administration has told federal officials it needs a final answer about any extra funding for hospitals by mid-April before legislators finish their annual budget negotiations.
Florida remains one of the largest states in the nation that has not accepted additional federal aid for its Medicaid program as part of the president's health care overhaul. But House Republicans have insisted Florida can still receive extra hospital money without expanding its Medicaid program.
Dudek said her negotiators have been focused only on the low-income pool program, not expansion.
Reporter William March contributed to this story.
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