Florida Senate budget committee advances bill cutting health coverage for working poor listen04/01/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The budget battled continued in the state Senate today. Republicans in the Senate Budget Committee voted to slash funds for the Medically Needy program shortly after they approved giving bonuses for judges who are quickest at moving cases through the court system.
Proposed Senate Bill 7174 would rename Medicaidâ€™s â€œmedically needyâ€ program. The system, which serves those whose health care expenses place them below the poverty line, would be known as the â€œMedicaid nonpoverty medical subsidy.â€ Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich said Republican bill sponsor Joe Negronâ€™s proposed title would be extremely inaccurate.
"I still believe that this is a misnomer, that this is not correct to say 'non-poverty'. People spend down and they are in poverty. Most of the people, because of the catastrophic costs of their illnesses, diseases, they not only are medically needy but they are in poverty."
Negronâ€™s proposal doesnâ€™t end with the programâ€™s moniker. It eliminates most of the services currently offered. More than 177,000 Medically Needy beneficiaries now receive financial assistance with doctorâ€™s visits, hospitalization, and prescription drugs. Negron said his proposal would do away with two of these.
"We elected in our committee to fund physician visits continue to pay for those. We are not, under the current budget, continuing to pay for prescriptions or for hospital visits."
Democratic Senator Rich said the bill would have extremely morbid consequences.
"I just think it's not good enough for us, as a legislature, as a state, to leave here and pass legislation that would really sentence people to death because that's what we're doing."
Negron said the cuts wouldnâ€™t affect children or pregnant women, that it wouldnâ€™t hurt seniors over 65 since they qualify for Medicare, and those with catastrophic illness qualify for federal aid. He said nobody would die as a direct result of the cuts, given the number of other aid programs available in both the public and private sector.
"There are other programs available in the private sector and in the public sector to help individuals with prescription costs, but it's $100 million in general revenue just for the three months that we've made a reduction, so it's balancing that against funding nursing homes, funding children's hospitals."
Republican Senator John Thrasher said he took offense to Richâ€™s death sentence comment, adding that tough times call for tough decisions.
"I don't believe I'm sentencing anybody to death by voting for this bill. I think what we're trying to do and what Senator Negron's good work has done is try to make the best, we're in a very desperate situation in the state of Florida."
Thrasher then asked Rich that if she had a better idea on how to help the state close its $3 billion budget gap? Rich said yes, as a matter of fact, now that you mention it.
"I do have a bill filed, Senate Bill 1764, which has to do with corporate income tax, it's the water's edge issue that we have had before and discussed before so if anybody would like to have a dialogue and discuss it I would be happy to have the bill heard and we can all have the discussion."
She said there are several tax loopholes benefiting the corporations and the well-off that could go. Wealthy budget committee chair JD Alexander said the committee may take up her proposal if it gets a chance, though itâ€™s doubtful such a measure would make it out of committee with such a GOP majority. Alexander, who represents parts of Central Florida including Lake Wales, said his constituency would benefit more from lower taxes than a full-funded medically-needy program.
"I live in a rural district and we probably have at least 12 percent unemployment. We don't have the luxury of large health care institutions in our backyard that have motored through this rough area because we continue to prioritize spending towards it."
Two Republican senators voted against the bill. One was New Port Richey Senator Mike Fasano. The other was Melbourne Senator Thad Altman, who said if lawmakers are trying to prove the economy, they need to think about such programs in terms of jobs and revenue generated.
"And I would hope, as we move forward, that we look at dynamic scoring in terms of not only what a bill would cost in terms of revenue or non-revenue. Some of the revenue sources that we could produce that would enable us to match some of these federal draw down dollars may actually have a net positive benefit to the state of Florida and to the taxpayers and produce wealth not only an improvement in the quality of life."
Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner, from Tampa, said the panel needs an even bigger-picture approach, and ought to consider health a basic right for all constituents â€“ not just those who are fortunate enough to have insurance.
"If I can't get out that bed and get to this place, if I'm too sick to move, I can't eat, I can't go to work, I can't provide for my family, I can do nothing. And so, to me, the blessing that we all have here assembled is that we all, on our very own, were able to get up this morning and get to this place. And we seem to take it for granted."
Gary Siplin was the only Democratic Senator to vote in favor of the bill, which Negron stressed would not impact program costs until April 2012. Less than an hour before the budget committee passed the cuts, they approved an $11 million incentive program that would reward the judges that rule on the most cases. The fastest judges would get around $3,000 on top of annual salaries exceeding $130,000. Majority Whip David Simmons said it would help unclog the court system.
"People want justice, they want a decision and it is so true that justice delayed is justice denied."
The committee also passed nearly $200 million in cuts to the stateâ€™s affordable housing program.