Florida Medicaid Debate Threatens to Shut Down Government

Republican Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Fla.) is counseling his fellow state lawmakers to, in the words of former Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater, “never fear the debate” as the Legislature struggles to settle a dispute that if unresolved could shut down all but the most essential state services in Florida.

A war of words over one of the most contentious phrases in 21st century political lexicon, “the expansion of Medicaid,” has pitted Gov. Rick Scott (R) against Democrats and even some of his fellow Republicans.

It has also blocked approval of the state’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The disagreement became so severe that lawmakers in the Florida House and Senate closed their offices and went home April 30, tired of wrangling with Gov. Scott and each other over whether Florida should expand its Medicaid program under Obamacare.

The Medicaid debate in Florida is much more than a typical partisan squabble over Obamacare. It opened the door to debate over healthcare spending in Florida, and that deadlocked negotiations over the next fiscal year’s budget.

Beyond the budget, there are some very human consequences to be paid if there is no resolution. Florida, as the Tampa Bay Times reported, has the second-highest number of low-income, uninsured adults in the nation. Only Texas has more.

Adding to the pressure is the Obama administration decision to end funding for the Low Income Pool (LIP) program, which was set up in 2005 to cover low-income people in Florida.

When negotiations broke down and cooler heads no longer prevailed at the end of April, the Florida Senate wanted to go with a Medicaid expansion plan tied to private insurance, an idea that was rejected by the House.

They are scheduled to start hammering out some kind of agreement during a special session in June.

Gaetz does not see disagreement as a bad thing, especially in politics. He said the state and federal governments that were established with three branches of government, including a legislative branch with two bodies of lawmakers, were “purposefully built with tension in the system.”

There is more than enough of that to go around in Tallahassee.

“The problem now is that the debate has turned sour and ugly. Some of the advocates have become petulant, even intolerant. Solutions have given way to sloganeering,” Gaetz said.

“The personal respect and trust between legislative leaders and between the Legislature and the governor, which is the WD-40 that otherwise eases the way to compromise, is missing this year. In other words, Tallahassee at its worst is taking on the identity of Washington at its best,” he added.

Gov. Scott blames Washington for the mess in which the state capitol of Tallahassee finds itself.