Health Care

As pressure mounts, health care talks delayed

Federal health care officials are temporarily suspending negotiations with Florida over a $2.2 billion program that helps safety-net hospitals, the state Agency for Health Care Administration said Wednesday.

Agency Secretary Elizabeth Dudek called the news “sudden and disappointing.”

Dudek said Florida’s conversations with the federal government over the so-called Low Income Pool program “had been productive and positive until this point,” and suggested the move “could signal the abrupt end of this federal healthcare program in Florida.”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declined to say why its chief negotiator would be unavailable for the next two weeks. But a CMS spokesman said the agency planned to “remain in contact with the state.”

The federal government’s announcement only adds to the tension in Tallahassee over next year’s budget. House and Senate lawmakers are about $5 billion apart because the Senate budget is counting on receiving billions of dollars in federal aid, including the LIP money.

Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, who had discussed the LIP program with federal officials in Washington one day earlier, said was puzzled over the federal government’s action.

“I don’t know where this is coming from,” García said. “When we met with them, they were very receptive to working with us.”

The LIP program, which helps hospitals treat low-income patients, expires on June 30. The federal government has refused to extend the program as it currently exists, but has not ruled out the possibility of a successor program.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat, said that Florida shouldn’t expect a deal unless it expands Medicaid — something House Republicans adamantly oppose.

On a visit to Tallahassee, she told Senate Democrats that she had “direct conversations” with federal health care officials on the subject.

“They are already very seriously looking at whether LIP should be extended at all,” she said. “It is certainly less likely that it would be extended if Medicaid is not expanded, and obviously that would be devastating.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was also in Tallahassee Wednesday, delivered a similar message: “The day of reckoning is here.”

The Senate is advancing an alternative to Medicaid expansion that would extend coverage to about 800,000 low-income Floridians. The plan hinges on the creation of a state-run marketplace for private insurance.

García said he discussed that proposal in Washington Tuesday, along with a proposed successor to the LIP program that would distribute the money more broadly than the current model does.

The feedback, García said, was “very positive.”

García said he stressed the fact that the Legislature has only a few more weeks to finalize Florida's budget.

Wednesday’s development, he added, could make it difficult for House and Senate leaders to move ahead with the budget building process.

“It’s going to affect every aspect of Florida’s budget,” he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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