Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said Thursday that he was suing the Obama administration for withholding hospital funds because the state would not expand Medicaid. The announcement is another twist in what has been a wild yearlong battle with the federal government over roughly $1 billion for Florida hospitals that serve low-income people. The fight has peaked as state lawmakers are desperate for an answer so they can complete a state budget before May 1.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health insurance legislation signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, states can receive federal dollars if they expand eligibility for Medicaid, a government health insurance program for people with low incomes. Florida is one of 21 states that has opted against expanding the program, although it has lately softened that stance while considering alternatives.
Gov. Scott lawsuit took some instant and tough criticism from his own party lead by Senate President Andy Gardiner, whose chamber has advocated for Medicaid expansion. The Senate’s Low-Income Pool model, devised last month, is the only one that Florida has presented to CMS during a year’s worth of talks. The Senate came up with its plan out of concern that Scott’s administration wasn’t acting with enough urgency.
“The federal government has no obligation to provide LIP funding or to work within our time frame,” Gardiner said in a statement.
“While we respect Gov. Scott’s authority to protect the state’s interests in the way he sees fit, we have a constitutional responsibility to pass a balanced budget by a specific deadline,” Gardiner said. “From where I sit, it is difficult to understand how suing CMS on Day 45 of a 60-day session regarding an issue the state has been aware of for the last 12 months will yield a timely resolution to the critical health care challenges facing our state.”
Gov. Scott and the House are against the Senate bill, warning that the federal government cannot be trusted to foot the bill. However, the Senate received assurances from CMS and the Obama administration that they will never pay less than 90 percent of the cost.
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott contends that a 2012 Supreme Court decision bars the federal government from coercing states into expanding Medicaid. Yet, that is what he says the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is doing because the agency insists that the hospital funds and Medicaid expansion should be part of the same discussion.
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford said Thursday that the proposed suit against the federal healthcare agency over hospital funding would be a “frivolous” and would represent the “tea party gone wild.”
Pafford told a large number of reporters that he thinks Scott’s political aspirations, including a possible U. S. Senate bid in 2018, could play a role in the decision to sue.
“Sure, it’s tea party gone wild,” Pafford said. “The governor is back to that. The lawsuit I think is frivolous at best — not being an attorney, but I’m going to guess.”
“We (Democrats) know what we want,” Pafford said. “We don’t necessarily care how we get there. Healthcare expansion is critical. And that’s what we need to be doing.”
And Pafford said that the governor will probably “lose quietly” in federal court as he has in the past with lawsuits challenging the federal policies. It’s a corporate reaction — we sue people,” he said. “The sad part is the taxpayers of Florida that will pay more.”
The lawsuit doesn’t complicate problems with the chambers agreeing on a 2015-16 state budget, Pafford said. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, he said, the chambers can do what they want, following the governor or voting to expand Medicaid despite his objections.
Federal health officials did not immediately comment, but have previously said that Florida was free to make its own choice regarding Medicaid expansion. Federal officials have said they want Medicaid expansion to be part of the solution in the debate over hospital funds.
They also want the state to prove how relying on federal funds to pay hospitals that care for those without insurance is a more effective use of taxpayer money than purchasing health insurance directly for those patients.
So despite great support throughout the Sunshine State for the Senate plan crafted by Gardiner from voters, major business groups, hospital organizations and healthcare advocates. It seems that Gov. Scott remains on target to scuttle the Medicare expansion plan at least for now.