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Bill Nelson hails the passage of the health care bill -- and his "Gator Aid"

The Senate's version of the health care bill passed this morning with Florida's two senators casting divergent votes.

Bill Nelson voted in favor: "During these many months of debate over health-care reform, my goal has been to pass legislation to make coverage affordable and available to everyone. Regardless of where we stand on specifics, I think most can agree the system is broken and needs to be fixed. While the Senate bill I voted for isn't perfect, it has many good elements. It will prevent insurers from dropping the sick and stop them from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. It also will reduce the deficit. And it includes one of my amendments to protect 800,000 seniors in Medicare HMOs all over Florida. Congress still has to merge this bill with the House version. And I’ve told negotiators I want them to close the "donut hole" gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage."

Nelson's amendment to grandfather Medicare Advantage beneficiaries in Florida has drawn criticism as one of the goodies ladled out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get the legislation passed. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote that Capitol Hill critics have dubbed it "Gator Aid."

But Politicfact notes that Florida seniors wouldn't be the only ones covered.

"Specifically, the money targets communities and areas where the cost of service is highest and allows those people to use the old rules," Politifact writes. "The language in the health care bill, which begins on Page 894, never mentions Florida or any specific state. Rather it creates a difficult-to-follow formula to determine just who should be protected from the changes.

"We should note that Nelson's provision wasn't a last-minute addition. The Medicare Advantage exemption was included in the health care reform bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee in October.

"We'll also note that the Senate Finance Committee widened the pool of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries protected from the new rules. The total additional cost is expected to be around $7.5 billion over 10 years, (Nelson spokesman Dan) McLaughlin said. Independent analysts at the Kaiser Family Foundation say the protections will cost around $5 billion between 2012 and 2019.

"So who benefits? Floridians for sure.

"Florida will definitely be treated more generously than most other states," said John Rother, executive vice president for policy and strategy for AARP.

"But not just Floridians. Of the 1 million or so Floridians participating in Medicare Advantage, about 800,000 are expected to be protected from possible cuts. But so are people living in New York and Los Angeles, as well as in Oregon, McLaughlin says. A spokesman for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., confirmed that New Jersey seniors also will benefit from Nelson's protections to Medicare Advantage.

"And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said this: "We got a special protection worth billions of dollars to stop Medicare cuts for 800,000 New York seniors."