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Obama tweaks ACA, but health care in FL has problems of its own

By   /   November 15, 2013  /   No Comments

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Fixing the problem or kicking the can down the road?

INSURANCE FIX: Even with a one-year extension for previously canceled policies, many more health care fixes are likely needed.

In the face of intense political pressure, President Obama announced Thursday that Americans can indeed keep their health insurance if they want to — at least for one more year.

Florida Watchdog contacted Florida Blue, a state insurance giant that canceled 300,000 policies last month, for specifics but did not get a response.

The Jacksonville-based insurance company did, however, release a statement saying individual policyholders can extend their plans through 2014. Small group plans are still under review.

Florida Blue chairman and CEO Pat Geraghty made it clear that following the health law is what led to the cancellations.

“Florida Blue has been an advocate for our members, and we complied with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which called for the inclusion of essential health benefits in all individual plans,” he said. “We notified impacted members and offered them the option of comparable and compliant plans giving them access to a wide variety of choices to meet their individual health care needs.”

Florida Blue is a not-for-profit, policyholder-owned, tax-paying mutual company, according to its website. It has about 4.3 million customers and is a licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association — a group with funding ties to Obamacare sign-up group Enroll America.

Other state insurers are on board, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

“Most health insurers in Florida have already voluntarily extended coverage for affected policyholders through 2014. However, for those companies that did not, the Office pledges to work with any company that chooses to continue coverage in accordance with the President’s transitional policy, and to facilitate the continuation of coverage for Floridians,” the agency said in a statement.

But whether affected Floridians can pay the same premium rate is unclear.

Karen Ignagni, CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, told the Wall Street Journal, “Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers.”

Other aspects of Florida’s health-care system appear to need fixing, too.

Only 3,751 Floridians selected an insurance plan through the state Obamacare health exchange in October, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. Florida has 3.5 million uninsured people.

But even if the healthcare.gov website is fixed, adding large amounts of newly insured patients will only exacerbate an existing shortage of doctors.

In an email, the Florida Department of Health told Florida Watchdog the state lacks an estimated 890 primary care physicians. That may not sound like a lot, but each of these missing doctors would serve dozens of would-be patients, and the current shortages are concentrated in low-income and rural areas, places where people will be added to the rolls.

“The Florida Department Health is working with our partners to help make sure there are physicians to serve Floridians in every community,” spokesman Nathan Dunn said.

The doctor shortage in Florida is far more severe when adding missing dental and mental health physicians to the primary care void, according to HHS figures

For lawmakers and interested parties, the solution, not surprisingly, is more spending.

“Due to the leadership of Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, $80 million is available for graduate medical education through the new Statewide Residency Program,” said Dunn.

The Florida Medical Association, a powerful lobbying group, wants more money for medical schools, forgiveness of medical student loans and higher Medicaid reimbursements for physicians.

Many doctors won’t treat Medicaid patients because the program pays roughly 59 cents on the dollar.

Florida Watchdog contacted the Agency for Health Care Administration for comment but was instead forwarded a list of Medicaid Provider Fee Schedules.

Health care is already the largest state budget expense, and Medicaid spending cost taxpayers $21 billion last year.

Florida taxpayers might also be on the hook for more when federal Medicaid reimbursements end, in part, at the end of 2014 — the same time hundreds of thousands of newly extended individual and small group insurance policies expire.

Scott, who supported the Obamacare Medicaid expansion — though he actively opposes the health law in general — predictably released a statement Thursday blasting the president’s “patchwork” fix.

“The patchwork changes President Obama announced to his healthcare law today amount to nothing more than kicking the can down the road for 300,000 Florida families who are losing the insurance plans the President told them they could keep. What happens to these families in a year?,” he said.

Amid the partisan retort, Scott, a former health care industry executive, may have correctly stated, “President Obama’s changes to his own law will likely be the first of many.”

Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org or follow Florida Watchdog on Twitter at @watchdogfla Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

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William Patrick covers government waste, fraud and abuse for Watchdog.org's Florida bureau. His work has appeared on numerous media websites, including Fox News and the Drudge Report.