TALLAHASSEE -- The debate over Medicaid expansion will return to the Florida Legislature this year, thanks to a state senator from Hialeah.
Republican state Sen. Rene Garcia on Tuesday filed a proposal seeking to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private insurance policies for poor Floridians.
The bill mirrors one that won unanimous support in the Senate last year, and had the backing of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. It died in the more conservative House, where all but one Republicans voted to support a rival plan that rejected $51 billion in federal funding.
Tuesday, Garcia said it would be “irresponsible” to leave those dollars on the table.
“That money would do more than provide healthcare coverage for so many Floridians,” he said. “It would be an economic stimulus package for the entire state.”
Garcia urged the lower chamber to “put aside partisan politics” and consider the proposal. He noted that eight states with either Republican governors or Republican-led legislatures had agreed to Medicaid expansion.
Despite the pressure, the House isn’t likely to budge.
“I like the House’s free-market approach to healthcare,” House Speaker Will Weatherford said Tuesday, reiterating his position from last year.
Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, has said he wants to see the Legislature focus on other health care issues.
He recently created a special committee to address health care workforce needs. The group is expected to consider providing more independence for highly trained nurses, increasing the number of medical students who go into primary care and regulating virtual doctor visits.
Even in the more-moderate Senate, Garcia’s proposal isn’t guaranteed success.
Garcia said he was starting to build support. “Hopefully, we can get Senate leadership on board as they were last year,” he said.
But state Sen. Joe Negron, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee and filed the Medicaid expansion bill last year, said he wasn’t sure how far Garcia’s proposals would get.
“Sometimes differences are so intractable that despite everyone's best efforts, the distance is just too far,” said Negron, R-Stuart.
Still, Negron commended Garcia for filing the bill.
“I applaud his effort to keep this important discussion alive,” he said.
Medicaid expansion was one of the most closely watched debates during the 2013 legislative session and drew national attention.
The Senate plan could have brought extended health care coverage to an estimated 1 million Floridians. But House Republicans insisted on a plan to free up $300 million in state money to buy basic coverage for 130,000 low-income residents.
The session ended in stalemate.
After lawmakers returned to their districts, Democrats tried to pressure Scott to call a special session on the issue. Scott refused.
The federal government has said it is not too late for Florida to accept the money.
Garcia files his bill as Republicans statewide work to win support from Hispanic voters in advance of the 2014 elections.
Garcia’s Senate district includes thousands of elderly Hispanic residents. Many of them support Medicaid expansion, he said.
“In Miami-Dade County, this would help huge numbers of people who are uninsured and don’t qualify for traditional Medicaid because they make too much money,” he said. “At least for the next couple of years, we can try to get these people insured, and get them to the doctors for primary and preventative care.”