Coalition led by League of Women Voters, Florida Nurses urge lawmakers to accept $51 billion in Medicaid funds

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The new national network of health care exchanges opened today to allow Americans to sign up for insurance coverage under the Affordable Health Care Act.

But there are 1.2 million uninsured Floridians ineligible for coverage through the exchanges, according to health care professionals and civic groups at a  press conference Tuesday in downtown St. Pete.

These uninsured Floridians already qualify for Medicaid – the federal program for low-income patients – but the state Legislature has refused $51 billion in federal money to fund the program in the Sunshine State.

That decision not only takes a toll on low-income individuals denied health coverage but also on the economy as a whole, according to Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“Florida is at a crossroads,” Macnab said. “Either we will move forward and expand Medicaid or be held back with the second highest number of uninsured residents in the country.”

The uninsured do not get routine checkups and often let health problems worsen until they require expensive hospital stays and interventions.

The costs end up being passed along to consumers through higher premiums. That’s because hospitals absorb costs for charity care but charge higher rates for services to cover them. Insurance companies then must raise rates for policy holders.

Macnab said that is an inefficient and costly way to deliver care and provide coverage.

St. Pete City Council Chair Karl Nurse echoed those statements at the morning press conference at North Straub Park. Nurse said that it is critical for Florida to allow for the Medicaid expansion and close the gap of uninsured residents denied coverage. (The health exchanges are intended to cover people whose incomes are not low enough to qualify for Medicaid but who cannot access coverage through their employers.)

Nurse said that as a business owner he provides insurance coverage for his employees. But Nurse said that he is aware that he faces higher fees from costs for charity care passed on to business owners through higher premiums.

“This is not about politics,” Nurse said. “It’s about math.”

Edward Briggs, president of the Florida Nurses’ Association, said that front-line staff sees the “devastation” caused by the lack of coverage for low-income patients. He said that families are broken up due to illness, and people lose their jobs.

“We pay a hidden tax for our uninsured citizens,” he said.

Florida is among only a handful of states that refuses to take the federal Medicaid dollars to fund coverage for low-income patients.

Recently, Arkansas lawmakers reversed their position on refusing the funding. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is now supporting the expansion, as is the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We see it as key to economic growth, job growth and the vitality of the community,” said Travis Norton, advocacy manager with the chamber.

A recent University of Florida study showed that by taking the $51 billion in Medicaid expansion money over the next 10 years, Florida will be able to create 5,000 new jobs. These jobs will be in construction, manufacturing, real estate, health care and other vital sectors of the state’s economy.