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Senate panel endorses health insurance for part-time state workers

by John Kennedy | March 18th, 2013

A Florida Senate committee moved ahead Monday with expanding the state employee health insurance program next year to cover temporary, part-time workers, as lawmakers look to avoid a $318 million penalty under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Some 9,000 workers in state agencies and the university system — currrently without insurance — could gain coverage under the move, endorsed by as Senate panel examining how to implement the federal health care overhaul.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said moving ahead with the coverage proposal “is the best of our two options.” The other would be absorbing the sizable penalty.

Analysts estimate that providing health insurance to these workers could cost the state as much as $138 million a year, with the first year’s cost demanding that about half that amount be tucked into next year’s budget. Workers would begin coverag Jan. 1, under the plan — middway in the state budget year.

The committee also endorsed allowing the federal government to set rates for insurers providing coverage in Florida under the federal plan which takes effect in January.

But Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the panel’s chairman, said the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation would continue to play an oversight role in reviewing the types of policies being offered Floridians.

Negron said that giving rate-setting authority to the federal government wasn’t designed to keep state lawmakers from catching heat from consumers over rising raes, which Republicans predict are certain. Instead, he said Florida officials are not prepared to meet what critics say is an ever-changing regulatory approach to health plans and rates emanating from Washington.

The same committee last week joined Republican leaders in the House in rejecting the Medicaid expansion that Gov. Rick Scott has endorsed. Negron said other Senate committees are continuing work on alternate plans for drawing down billions of federal dollars available to states which expand coverage for low-income Floridians.

Negron is looking to enhance the state’s Healthy Kids insurance program to make it available to adults seeking coverage. Another senator, Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, is looking to use Florida Health Choices, an insurance exchange created five years ago but never really developed, as the building block for expanding coverage.

Any alternate plan would need to win federal approval. Lawmakers also face a May 3 deadline for ending the annual session.

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