Lawmakers OK health-care plan for uninsured

May 5, 2008

Florida Today--May 3, 2008

By Bill Cotterell

State legislators approved a plan to provide basic health insurance Friday for nearly 4 million Floridians who can’t afford coverage, calling it "a giant step" toward protecting the poor and working poor.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s Cover Florida plan calls for the state to negotiate health-care plans that individuals or small businesses will be able to buy for $100 to $150 a month, per person. Plans would have to cover preventive services, emergency care, hospitalization and office visits, at varying rates.

Crist’s plan was coupled with a "marketplace" system insisted upon by the House. The Florida Health Choices Corp. would arrange coverage for employers with fewer than 50 workers, offering a variety of services.

"There are lots of ways and ideas for how we can achieve this goal, and today, we have made great progress in providing uninsured individuals and small businesses choices in how to access health care coverage," said Crist.

Side deals massaged into the package in the closing hours of the 2008 session would make it easier for new hospitals to open and for retired dentists to get licensed to serve needy areas.

The key to the deal was Crist’s acceptance of a $1.5 million cost for a corporate system that the House wanted. At a hastily arranged news conference with legislative and administration officials involved in the negotiations, Crist said it was a small price to pay for giving coverage opportunities to about 3.8 million people.

"We are sent here to do something good for the people of Florida and this is something that’s been done for the people," Crist said. "That’s what public service is all about."

Crist said Agency for Health Care Administration chief Holly Benson has already been directed to start negotiating with insurance providers for low-cost plans. Last month, Crist introduced a list of major insurance providers endorsing his plan and saying they would be willing to participate.

"I do not expect it to solve the acute health care crisis facing our state but it may begin to address it," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader.

Gelber said he was concerned that "it may increase insurance products that are inferior and predatory."

The Office of Insurance Regulation, AHCA and Department of Management services would be involved in oversight of the plan under the bill. Insurers would not have to offer all coverage required by state regulations, but would still have to cover emergency treatment, hospitalization and certain prescriptions.

"This is a giant step forward," said Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the House pointman in the negotiations. Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, a retired physician who handled the bill in the Senate, said "we’ve made baby step after baby step" in his 14 years in the Legislature.

"Today, we made a giant step," said Peaden. "This is the most historic piece of legislation we’ve passed in health care."