Setting off for Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials over health-care money at the heart of a state budget crisis, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday flatly ruled out a Senate plan to extend private insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of lower-income Floridians.
Scott, who once supported Medicaid expansion, said last month that he now opposes a Senate proposal to use expansion dollars for the private insurance plan. But his remarks to reporters on what he would tell federal officials about the Senate initiative marked his strongest rejection yet.
"It's not going to happen," Scott said. "There's no support in the House. I'm not going to support it. It's not a program that's worked."
Scott is expected to meet Wednesday in Washington with Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool, or LIP, program, which is scheduled to expire June 30. The program sends money to hospitals and other health providers that care for large numbers of low-income residents, and uncertainty about its future has played a major role in a budget impasse between the Senate and House.
The governor spoke repeatedly Tuesday about getting Burwell to "reconsider" a decision on the Low Income Pool, even though Burwell's department has not made a final decision on the program. While the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which Burwell oversees, has said the future and funding level of LIP would be tied to whether the state expands Medicaid, federal officials can't legally rule on Florida's request for LIP funding until early July.
Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have filed a lawsuit to try to force the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to stop linking the LIP decision and the state's intentions on Medicaid expansion. Senate leaders reject the notion that they want to expand Medicaid, but their private-insurance plan would rely on federal funding and would serve the same population as a Medicaid expansion envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act.
"Today my goal is just, focus on hoping they (federal officials) will reconsider," Scott said. "The reason I'm doing this is we've got to get a budget done. And it's hard to get a budget done not knowing exactly their decision. So right now, I'm focused on a continuation budget, a base budget, whatever you want to call it, because of their decision."
Lawmakers will have to hold a special session to meet a constitutional requirement of passing a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Senate leaders, in particular, have dismissed Scott's still relatively fuzzy concept of a "continuation budget," which Scott has said would continue state programs at their current funding levels until the federal government's final decision on LIP funding.
The governor, who has been criticized for inaction during the legislative budget standoff, also issued an executive order Tuesday setting up a panel to investigate hospital funding. Scott said he hoped the Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding would provide information that he and lawmakers could use in crafting a spending plan for the upcoming budget year.
"I want to make sure everybody gets access to health care at a price that they can afford, and your tax dollars aren't wasted," he said.
But Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant blasted Scott for the move, accusing him of "grandstanding" instead of trying to solve the bitter division between House and Senate Republicans over health-care funding. She also pointed to Scott's resignation as chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain in the 1990s amid fraud allegations.
"Now, Rick Scott --- who resigned from the health care company he founded amid federal fraud investigations --- has decided his time would be well spent auditing the books of Florida hospitals," Tant said in a statement issued by the party. "How does that help resolve the gridlock in the legislature? The only hospital management advice Rick Scott knows how to offer is training executives how to fleece the federal government for billions."
Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said his group's hospitals "look forward" to working with the commission.
"Given the crucial role safety net hospitals play in caring for the state's poorest and most vulnerable citizens, training Florida's next generation of doctors and providing highly specialized services to sick and injured children, we would welcome seats at the commission table," Carvalho said.