Medicaid expansion issue polarizes Tiger Bay forum for state House candidates

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When a Republican candidate for the Florida House said at a Suncoast Tiger Bay meeting some patients may be better off with no insurance at all than Medicaid, Democrats went crazy.

Needless to say GOP candidates in Florida House races were a little more careful with their words during another Tiger Bay meeting Friday. That’s not to say the bottom line is any different.

Expanding Medicaid in Florida is almost entirely a partisan issue.

Candidates in four Pinellas County House districts fielded questions from the hungry Tiger’s den about a host of issues from Citizens Property Insurance to arming teachers in public schools. But the first thing any of them grabbed onto was the contentious Medicaid expansion.

Straight off the bat candidates were asked whether or not they would support accepting $51 billion in federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid system to about 1 million Floridians. All but one GOP candidate said no and the only one who said yes is relatively unheard of.

“This is money that we have sent up to Washington that we are not able to collect,” said District 64 GOP candidate Miriam Steinberg.

Steinberg is running against incumbent James Grant who is also a Republican. Their race was moved to the November 4 General Election because a write-in candidate was ousted for living outside the district.

Grant’s response to the question was a little more contentious.

“There’s not $51 billion American dollars, there’s $51 billion Yen that will be borrowed from China,” Grant said.

When asked if the Medicaid expansion naysayers had an alternative, Grant came the closest to echoing the statement made at the last luncheon by House district 65 GOP candidate Chris Sprowls – the one about being better off with no insurance at all.

“There are [studies] across the U.S. that suggests that [there are] no better quality-of-care options on a statistically significant basis from a patient [who] has Medicaid, so he was going into an emergency room without a [primary care] physician,” Grant said.

District 66 incumbent Larry Ahern played on an argument that has become cliché among Republicans rejecting federal money for Medicaid expansion.

“It’s also the biggest thing that we fund right now in our budget so that if anything takes place and Medicaid gets expanded or if there’s any kind of a shortfall at the top end of it, if there’s no dedicated funding source for it, it comes out of general revenue and the only place we can get that money is from education,” Ahern said.

Ahern faces Democrat Lorena Grizzle. His comments were met by groans from at least a handful of people in the room.

Another incumbent, District 69 Representative Kathleen Peters, argued the system we have is already broken so pumping more money into wouldn’t be a good idea. Instead, she argues the state needs to continue efforts to improve managed care. Peters claims she called numerous doctors offices to ask them what they thought of Medicaid.

“It took me five offices before I even found one that would accept Medicaid. Doctors won’t see them. Doctors won’t serve them,” Peters said.

Peters’ opponent, attorney Scott Orsini, would gladly vote to expand Medicaid.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch was the second Tiger Bay member to ask a question. He told candidates the first question was his and instead asked them to elaborate on alternative solutions to expanding Medicaid. His question won the Fang and Claw award for asking the most challenging question.

The next meeting is September 18 with Pinellas County Commission candidates in Districts 2 & 4.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.