Advocates call for urgent health care coverage expansion
MIAMI, Fla. - In Florida, more than 1.5 million uninsured Floridians could have access to affordable health care if Florida lawmakers expanded Medicaid. Will a health pandemic finally persuade lawmakers to act?
Missouri residents approved Medicaid expansion in a special referendum vote this week. It’s the latest victory for Medicaid expansion that shows expanding access to health coverage is a nonpartisan issue. When voters are given a chance to decide, expansion has been approved —in states that include Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho and Nebraska. In Florida, the state Senate has twice passed Medicaid expansion bills. The Florida House of Representatives, however, has blocked them. This year, a measure was signed into law that will make it even harder to achieve Medicaid expansion through a ballot initiative.
Expanding Medicaid, a federal/state health care insurance program, would open eligibility to working poor individuals and families with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government would pay for 90 percent of costs, relieving the state of the increased fiscal burden as COVID-19 causes health care costs to increase dramatically. With more than 500,000 cases and nearly 8,000 deaths to date, Florida is one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic.
A broad coalition of Florida health care advocates led by Florida Voices for Health (FVH) has been leading the effort to expand Medicaid in Florida.
“Florida lawmakers need to put aside partisan opposition, just like the people of Missouri did, to consider the well-being of their constituents, including front-line health care workers, older Floridians and working parents, who are already struggling to survive,” said Scott Darius, Executive Director of FVH.
Miriam Harmatz, longtime coalition member and Executive Director of Florida Health Justice Project, explained: “Before the pandemic, we already knew that over 3,000 Floridians had died due to the state’s failure to expand Medicaid. I shudder to think what that number is now. Florida will eventually pass Medicaid, either through the Legislature or a ballot initiative, like 38 other states and D.C. have done. In the meantime, how many people will unnecessarily suffer and die?”
Roxey Nelson, a Vice President with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, another longtime coalition member, underscored that the Florida Legislature needs to expand Medicaid now. “Every member of the House of Representatives is up for election every 2 years, and voters need to know what their position will be. There is no issue more urgent.”
In the fallout of the economic crisis, a full quarter of non-elderly Floridian adults are currently unemployed. Just like in Missouri, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, including record job losses, has left uninsured residents with few options for treatment of COVID-related illness and complications, and dependent on overwhelmed public health clinics and charity hospitals. Some residents forgo early treatment for fear of incurring medical debt, waiting until they are extremely ill and facing life-threatening complications to visit emergency rooms. Others who have survived initial infections need follow-up care for long-lasting or permanent damage, including heart disease, kidney failure and lung impairment.
“The tremendous health benefits and improved outcomes that Medicaid expansion would bring Floridians should be reason enough for lawmakers to take action,” said Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute. “Medicaid expansion would also benefit Florida’s budget by bringing in billions of additional federal dollars, freeing up roughly $200 million in state funds. This really is a no-brainer during this COVID-19 public health emergency.”
Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) addresses the high uninsured rate among low-income adults, including those in the “coverage gap,” who don’t earn enough to qualify to purchase ACA policies but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid under strict guidelines set up by states like Florida. Many are families with very low-wage jobs prevalent in Florida’s service and gig economy, with tenuous connections to the workplace. These same residents, including immigrants in the essential worker categories such as migrant workers, health care workers and retail or custodial care, do not qualify for unemployment benefits and have been left with no income and no way to afford health care in the pandemic.
Health Care for Florida, a coalition spearheaded by Florida Voices for Health, Florida Policy Institute, Florida Health Justice Project and 1199SEIU, is focused on building a learning community of partner organizations in support of expanding Medicaid to adults with low income.