State Politics

What’s in the details of the healthcare plans of Florida’s candidates for governor?

Gillum and DeSantis spar in Florida governor debate

Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum traded insults in their debate on October 24, 2018. Note: video contains reference to racial slur.
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Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum traded insults in their debate on October 24, 2018. Note: video contains reference to racial slur.

During last week’s final Florida governor’s debate between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, an ugly back-and-forth over alleged ethical lapses grabbed headlines.

It also overshadowed what might have otherwise been the news of the night: DeSantis announced he had uploaded his long-awaited healthcare plan to his campaign site.

“The bottom line is we have to make it more affordable for people,” he told the debate audience. “We’re focusing on affordability like a laser,” he said.

The entire healthcare segment of the hour-long debate? About five minutes.

That’s perhaps emblematic of the Florida governor’s race, which, in the days leading up to Nov. 6, has revolved around a drip-drip-drip of new ethical questions surrounding Gillum’s past trips as Tallahassee mayor with lobbyists and undercover FBI agents.

Yet in a state where more than 1 in 10 people do not have insurance, polls have shown healthcare is at the top of Floridians’ minds.

The window for enrollment and renewal for marketplace coverage is Nov. 1-Dec. 15. Here are tips on how to stay covered.

Policy experts who took a closer look at DeSantis’ plan said it lacks a clear way to lower costs and would leave more people uninsured than Gillum’s proposal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

DeSantis’ plan emphasizes that a patient should know how much their healthcare really costs, vowing to enforce a 2016 law that proposed a state website for patients to view healthcare costs at different facilities. The plan also suggests encouraging insurance companies to share their savings with customers by making “cash payments” to them — an idea one expert found unsatisfactory to truly reduce cost.

“There’s nothing wrong with more transparency but knowing exactly how expensive it is does nothing to help Floridians who can’t afford their hypertension medications or a woman who gets diagnosed with breast cancer and needs life-saving treatment quickly,” said Joan Alker, a professor at Georgetown University who has published numerous reports about Florida healthcare policy.

“Everyone already knows that healthcare is expensive,” she said.

As for Gillum’s plan, his campaign sent a copy of a more detailed healthcare plan to the Herald/Times on Tuesday, which reiterated much of Gillum’s stump speeches and, notably, called Medicare for All a “North Star” — a lofty aspiration worth pursuing.

But since the primary, Gillum has stepped back from Medicare for All, a Bernie Sanders-endorsed plan with a big price tag that would essentially create universal healthcare. DeSantis asserts such a plan will result in skyrocketing taxes.

Gillum has instead shifted to a more moderate approach: expanding Medicaid in Florida, an option allowed under the Affordable Care Act that would steer billions of federal dollars to cover an estimated 700,000 Floridians.

Experts said the Medicaid expansion would result in a greater reduction of the uninsured rate in Florida, compared to DeSantis’ plan.

“More people would be covered by Medicaid expansion because of the holes in our system currently,” said Steven Ullmann, a professor of health sector management and policy at the University of Miami.

Currently, able-bodied adults who don’t have children are not eligible for Medicaid in Florida. Working parents cannot be covered under Medicaid unless their income is equal to or less than 30 percent of the poverty line. That amounts to about $7,275 in annual income for a family of four, according to the Florida Policy Institute.

Florida’s Republican-controlled state Senate voted to expand Medicaid in 2015, but neither the House nor Gov. Rick Scott followed suit. Legislative leaders have already foreshadowed that unless Democrats take over the Florida Senate — which is possible but not likely — lawmakers will not cooperate with Gillum to expand Medicaid.

DeSantis has said he would not push to expand Medicaid.

“Expanding Medicaid would extend to able-bodied adults,” he said in a statement. “That’s not what Medicaid was designed for, that’s not what taxpayers pay for, and that’s not how healthcare or government should work.”

Also at issue in the healthcare debate are insuring people with costly “preexisting conditions.”

In his more detailed plan, Gillum vows to sign a law “in his first Legislative session” that prohibits insurers from denying coverage or benefits for any preexisting conditions.

DeSantis, too, has promised that if the Affordable Care Act’s protections were removed by federal action, he would step in.

“Ron DeSantis believes that no person should be denied access to medical care based on the existence of a preexisting condition. Period,” wrote Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for DeSantis’ campaign.

These statements are part of a national trend of Republicans embracing the protections for preexisting conditions, arguably the most popular portion of the Affordable Care Act which many in Congress — including DeSantis — have worked to repeal. Their replacement bill, the American Health Care Act, did not pass last summer.

DeSantis’ online plan addresses preexisting conditions by saying that should Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act, he would work as governor to create a robust insurance market that will provide Floridians insurance before they get sick.

But experts said that could leave some people out — like those who were born with preexisting conditions.

“If I lived in Florida and I had a preexisting condition ... I would not find any comfort by what he says here,” Alker, the Georgetown professor, said. “I would not feel at all protected.”

Herald /Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report