As chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, Hialeah Republican Rene Garcia is a key member of Senate President Andy Gardiner's leadership team.
Gardiner, for instance, sent Garcia and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to meet March 31 with U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services officials about funding for the Low Income Pool program, which helps hospitals and other providers care for low-income and uninsured patients. Questions about continued funding for the program, known as LIP, are a key focus of Florida's stalled legislative budget negotiations.
Born in Hialeah, Garcia served as a member of its city council from 1997 to 1999. In 2000, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served until 2008. In 2010, he was elected to the Senate. He was a founding board member of the Children's Trust in Miami and describes himself on his Senate website as "an activist for KidCare," the federal-state health insurance program for children.
Garcia earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Florida International University and a master's degree in health administration and policy at the University of Miami. His day job is vice president of community relations for Dade Medical College.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Rene Garcia:
Q: You've been asked a million times about your trip to Washington. But in light of recent developments --- especially Gov. Rick Scott's lawsuit against the Obama administration about the Low Income Pool--- how do you view the impasse now, based on what the feds told you?
GARCIA: There was no impasse. The reality is that when we went to Washington, Sen. Richter and myself, we went to present the Senate's LIP proposal. We wanted to make sure that Washington, that (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services), knew that there was a LIP model that addressed all the issues and concerns they had as it related to the old LIP program. That's what we went to do, and it was well received. There was never any adversarial comments or back and forth. We left with very positive feelings. And that's why, when we heard there was an impasse --- that wasn't the same information that we were getting from CMS.
Q: Do you think Florida could take a different approach, other than suing, that would be more successful?
GARCIA: That's the governor's prerogative, that's the job of the executive, but I just don't understand how that would help any negotiations. If you are trying to negotiate a deal on LIP with CMS, I just don't understand why you would sue the federal government in the middle of negotiations. I think that would stall negotiations. … I'm not in the executive (branch), but I think if you're trying to negotiate, it makes it a little bit harder to negotiate a deal when you are getting sued.
Q: Your bill to expand KidCare to the children of legal immigrants hasn't been heard in the House yet. Is it too late? Do you think you can move it during budget negotiations?
GARCIA: Right now we're going to wait to see what happens. We have to see what happens with LIP. Everything, unfortunately, is hinging on what happens with LIP and with Medicaid here in the Senate and also in the House, as it relates to the budget.
So when it moves more through the process, we'll figure it out. But it's one of my priorities, something I've worked hard on. If we can't get the bill through the process, we can definitely work on something in the budget, and hopefully we can get our friends in the House to come to the table on that one.
Q: Children's advocates are alarmed about cuts to the Early Steps program, which provides early intervention to babies and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities. They've been calling for more funding, not less. How do you view the program's future, and what policy or funding changes would you like to see?
GARCIA: Well, for now I think in our budget, you see that we've put more funding into the Early Steps program. And I feel very confident that can get them through the next year and keep that program running. I feel comfortable with the fact that the Department of Health is now having open conversations with the providers. That is something that didn't happen until this point, in trying to figure out what is the best practices that need to be in place to ensure that the program has longevity and continues to provide services for all these children that really need it.
Q: You're a Republican who represents a district where the Affordable Care Act is very popular. How do you walk that fine line?
GARCIA: Because it's not a Republican or a Democratic issue anymore. My district is very Republican, it's very blue-collar, hard-working men and women that wake up every morning, go to work and do their best to put a roof over their head for their family and a plate of food on the table for them to eat. And the fact that some of our friends think that denying them health coverage is a political gain --- it's completely the opposite, and we see that by the number of enrollees into the Affordable Care Act. These are working men and women who didn't have access to health coverage, or couldn't afford it. And that's what the Affordable Care Act has done; it's given them the opportunity to buy and have insurance. And that's why you see that those numbers are through the roof in our community. Partly, also, the marketing has been done in our district, and the advocates have been out there talking about it. And that's why you see it. So it's not a really Republican or a Democratic issue anymore. And that's the reality that we face.