TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida House has soundly rejected a Medicaid expansion compromise that even supporters admitted had its flaws and was seemingly doomed to fail almost from the start.
The bill, which tore apart the regular session as the House and Senate bitterly disagreed, was voted down 72-41 Friday after a rousing, nearly seven-hour debate during which nearly 60 lawmakers spoke. It was an attempt by the Senate to draw down $18 billion federal dollars and give it to hundreds of thousands of Floridians to purchase private health insurance instead of putting them in the regular Medicaid program.
But Republicans insisted it would still expand President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and increase the federal deficit. Even supporters acknowledged the bill would cover far fewer people than the 800,000 who are eligible. Gov. Rick Scott was also strongly opposed.
"I know an entitlement when I see one. (The Senate bill) is simply Obamacare Medicaid expansion with a clever name," said Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven.
The vote came on the fifth day of a special session that was required after the House and Senate failed to pass a budget during their regular 60-day session. The two chambers were divided over health care, including whether to expand health care coverage.
During the regular session, the House never voted on the Senate proposal. That changed after an emotionally charged debate that fell along party lines as legislators either called it disastrous or life-saving. The final vote was divided, although four Republicans voted with the Democrats.
Democrats read Scripture and urged lawmakers to put aside partisanship to help the most vulnerable.
"Simply voting no, no, no because Obamacare has the name Obama in it is not a way to govern. ... There are real human beings that all of us represent that are in this coverage gap and have health care needs that go unmet," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat.
Rep. Evan Jenne castigated the House leadership for holding closed-door meetings and refusing to compromise by abruptly ending the regular session three days early, comparing them to the book "Lord of the Flies."
"Politics of the hyper-partisan have stained the honor of this chamber and it's sad. Children left to their own devices on an island, turned feral, showing no leadership. Welcome to the Florida House," said the South Florida Democrat.
Supporters have tried unsuccessfully to pass Medicaid expansion for the past few years and noted lawmakers would be back debating the issue again in a few months as federal funds for hospitals that care for the uninsured are diminishing.
"While today's debate is over and votes have been cast, the critical health care challenges facing Florida still remain," Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement.
The Senate revamped the bill earlier this week to address several concerns raised by the House, adding measures that would end the program after three years and strengthening a work-requirement component, although federal health officials would likely not approve the latter. The proposal also required recipients to pay small monthly premiums.
Republicans warned the expansion could put taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars and that the Obama administration may back out of its promise to pay the entire bill for the first few years and 90 percent after that. They also feared that a larger than anticipated number of recipients would sign up, further increasing the financial burden on the state.
"Obamacare has been a legacy of failure and broken promises," said Rep Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.
While the House and Senate are divided over health care coverage Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli announced they have reached a broad deal on a new state budget, including how much will be spent on education and health care.
Legislators still have to hammer out how much they will set aside for specific spending items. But this means they will likely avoid a partial shutdown of state government. The broad budget deal calls for pumping in additional state money to help offset the loss of federal aid for hospitals.
But it is unlikely the state will be able to boost spending on schools to the historic levels sought by the governor.