Calling it a "compassionate, common-sense step forward," Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday said he would support a potentially massive expansion of the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The announcement was a dramatic move for the Republican governor, who launched his political career as an outspoken critic of President Obama's efforts to overhaul the health-care system. The announcement also shifts the focus of the contentious Medicaid debate squarely to the Legislature, which would have to approve any expansion.
"We have a choice --- and it's not an easy choice --- but my job is to worry about every Florida family,'' Scott said during a news conference at the Governor's Mansion.
Even before Scott started the news conference, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, issued a statement that stopped far short of an endorsement of the expansion. Weatherford said he is looking forward to the recommendations of a select committee that has been studying the Affordable Care Act and that the House's "actions will be based on principle and rooted in facts."
"Governor Scott has made his decision and I certainly respect his thoughts,'' Weatherford said. "However, the Florida Legislature will make the ultimate decision. I am personally skeptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of health care in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability."
Scott said he would support expanding Medicaid eligibility for three years --- a period of time in which the federal government is supposed to pay 100 percent of the expansion costs. He said the expansion would have to go through a reauthorization process after three years, which would give the state a chance to determine how it affects health-care costs, quality and access.
The move could lead to hundreds of thousands of newly eligible people signing up for Medicaid coverage. But Scott's stance drew sharply different reactions, with Democratic lawmakers and groups such as Planned Parenthood applauding the governor and conservative activists all but calling him a traitor.
"Candidate Scott ran on fighting Obamacare and was a leader in that movement," said Slade O'Brien, Florida director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. "To switch, it's one of the biggest flip-flops I've ever seen. It's going to be remarkably disappointing to the conservative base."
The Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, meanwhile, sent an email pointing to the fact that about one in five Floridians lack health insurance. It said expanding Medicaid will ensure that women and families have access to basic care.
"Politics should not stand in the way of Floridians getting the preventive care they need,'' said Judith Selzer, vice president of public policy and communications for the Planned Parenthood affiliates.
Channel 4 spoke with people Wednesday night who said they weren’t sure how they feel about the governor’s decision.
"...He’s just giving in to pressure," said Raymond Walker. "I don’t think he should give in at all."
Walker is almost 60, and said he doesn’t access Medicaid benefits. His opposition to the governor’s announcement stems from his criticism to the Affordable Care Act.
"I think personal healthcare would be much better. Get insurance companies competing, for that. We’re a competitive country, that’s just the way it ought to be done," said Walker.
“Scott came around to what everyone has known all along: accepting federal funds to extend Medicaid to 1.3 million Floridians is good for hospitals, businesses, state and local governments and, most importantly, the people who need health care," said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now.
"This stunning about-face is merely the latest move to repackage a governor whose approval rating with Floridians remains as toxic as his Tea Party agenda. But Scott’s election year makeover on issue after issue is fooling no one and simply underscores his central problem: he can’t be trusted," said Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant.
Americans for Prosperity-Florida’s State Director Slade O’Brien called Rick Scott's announcement "extremely disappointing."
“Florida’s Medicaid program already costs the taxpayers more than $20 billion a year, and the financial burden will only grow if a million new people are added to the program. Hopefully our legislative leaders will not follow in Governor Scott’s footsteps and will reject expansion of this broken system," said O'Brien.
Scott's announcement came several hours after the Obama administration sent a letter to the state indicating it would approve a proposal to shift almost all Medicaid beneficiaries into managed-care plans. Scott and Republican legislative leaders have long championed that controversial idea, which they say would help hold down Medicaid costs and better coordinate care for beneficiaries.
Speculation swirled in the Capitol on Wednesday about whether federal approval of the managed-care proposal would be tied to state approval of the Medicaid expansion. But Scott denied such a linkage.