Florida budget snarled as governor challenges 'Obamacare'

AP News
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Posted: May 08, 2015 7:49 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a longtime opponent of "Obamacare," made a startling announcement shortly after his mother's death, going on TV two years ago to explain that he had dropped his objections to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The Republican governor, a former hospital executive who entered politics running TV ads against the Affordable Care Act, said then in 2013 that his mother's death had changed his perspective, and that he could no longer "in good conscience" oppose expanding health care coverage to nearly 1 million Floridians.

Scott's allies, opponents and the press corps in Tallahassee were incredulous over his change of heart, asking if his support for Medicaid expansion could be a calculated move designed to win Obama administration approval for his long-sought proposal to hand control of the existing Medicaid population's health care over to private insurance companies.

Scott insisted then that his sudden reversal was motivated by the death of his mother, and that he wasn't expecting anything from Obama in exchange. But he soon got the federal waiver he had been pressing for, and private companies now manage Medicaid benefits for more than three million Floridians.

Scott's gratitude didn't last — he is again one of the nation's harshest critics of "Obamacare" and the Medicaid expansion the president has been lobbying for. Scott even sued the federal government two weeks ago, alleging that Obama is illegally coercing the state to expand Medicaid to more of the working poor, in ways that could cost taxpayers dearly.

Now the governor says he shouldn't be forced to expand the same program he supported two years ago, even if the financial terms are now much better for Florida: With its current Medicaid population, Florida pays 40 percent of the bill and the federal government pays 60 percent. Under Medicaid expansion, the feds will pay the entire bill at first, and 90 percent thereafter.

"He engaged in a deceitful plan to privatize Medicaid, all while pretending to embrace an expansion of the program that would help his constituents. I'm at a loss to think of a time when truer colors were more exposed," U.S. congresswoman Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement Friday.

This dispute over Medicaid is the chief reason the Florida Legislature, with large GOP majorities in both houses, adjourned its annual session last week without passing a budget, as it must by July 1. The Senate, backed by hospitals and business groups, supported a plan to expand Medicaid, while the more conservative House, with Scott's blessing, rejected that.

The pressure remains high. Florida's budget has a gaping hole, and a $1 billion federal grant that defrays hospital care for indigent patients in the state expires June 30 unless state Republicans can reach a deal with the Obama administration.

An AP reporter asked the governor a tough question Thursday after Scott returned empty-handed from Washington, where he had tried to persuade Obama's Health and Human Services secretary to extend the grant even without a Medicaid deal.

"Two years ago you did come out in favor of expansion," the reporter asked. "Could you explain to me — were you lying back then — or has something changed, other than an election, between now and then to get you to change your position?"

"Let's remember what I said back then. It was the day that we were able to get our waivers done," Scott responded.

Republican State Sen. Joe Negron, the architect of Florida's plan to get federal Medicaid money two years ago, told the AP Friday that it was always clear to him that Scott's fleeting endorsement of Obamacare back then was intended to win the waiver. "In his mind those two policy items were linked," Negron said.

After the AP reported Friday that Scott "conceded" that his earlier support of Medicaid expansion was a "ruse," the governor's office issued a statement calling that characterization incorrect.

"Governor Scott answered the question by discussing that he came out in support of Medicaid expansion, only if it was fully federally funded, at the same time the federal government granted Florida a waiver to let the state reform its Medicaid system. Unfortunately, the AP editorialized the Governor's statement."