May 07, 2018

Top Democrat calls for "thorough review" of state move to trim Medicaid eligibility

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A top Democrat is calling on federal officials to conduct a “thorough review” of the state’s request to shorten the window for Medicaid retroactive eligibility, after demanding its application be corrected to reflect some senators’ concerns about what she called an "ill-advised" policy change.

Incoming state Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson wrote a letter Monday to the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, criticizing the state’s decision to save money by shortening how long non-pregnant adults can retroactively qualify for Medicaid coverage. Gibson also criticized the state Agency for Health Care Administration’s application for saying it was “not aware of any concern or opposition raised by any member of either party” during budget talks.

State lawmakers approved a budget in the final days of the legislative session which authorized shortening the current 90-day period those patients can retroactively have medical bills covered under Medicaid after they apply. The current policy allows eligible patients under Medicaid to have recent medical expenses covered and ensures facilities are paid for services they provide.

The proposed change, which must be approved by the federal government, would shorten that period to up to 30 days within the month that eligible patients apply for Medicaid coverage. The state agency estimated the change would save about $98 million and could impact about 39,000 people.

In its application to the federal government, the agency's Deputy Secretary for Medicaid Beth Kidder wrote that because the change does not alter any qualifying criteria, provider rates or benefits, the change "cannot accurately be described as a 'cut.'"

But opponents say it is just that, questioning the state's estimates and saying the new 30-day policy could harm patients who might miss the application window and be forced to bear high medical costs, as well as leave facilities with unpaid bills and pressure to submit applications more quickly.

Gibson, in her letter, called on the agency to conduct “a thorough review of grossly shortening retroactive eligibility for life-saving medical care.”

The policy, “if approved... will saddle senior citizens, veterans, those with disabilities, and all of their families, with massive medical debt even able-bodied individuals would find impossible to pay,” she wrote.

She also objected to the agency's assertion it was unaware of any objections from legislators during the budget discussion. Some Democratic senators — including Sens. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, and Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami — questioned how patients with sudden traumatic injuries might be affected in budget talks and on the Senate floor.

The Jacksonville senator first issued a press release Friday afternoon calling on the agency to issue a correction, which prompted Agency Secretary Justin Senior to call her that night and say changes would be made, she said in a statement.

“In justifying its request, the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) falsified the record of events preceding the state legislature’s approval of the change during the debate over the upcoming state budget,” Gibson wrote Monday.

AHCA spokeswoman Mallory McManus said the agency wrote it was not aware of concerns “as no Senators contacted our Agency to ask questions or raise concerns." She said the agency would share Gibson’s comments with federal officials Monday but declined to clarify if it was submitting those comments as a correction.

“At the end of the day this was part of a budget that was passed by both the Florida House of Representatives and Senate, and is legislatively mandated,” McManus said.

If the request is approved, Florida would join four other states — including New Hampshire, Indiana, Arkansas and Iowa — in trimming the period of time patients have retroactive coverage. It would, however, be the first state that did not expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act to do so.

The state has until July 1 to have the change approved, when its budget goes into effect.

Photo: Florida Senate

April 19, 2018

As Florida lawmakers consider special legislative session, statewide teachers' union calls for more school funding


The Florida Education Association aimed to put Florida's political leaders on the spot on Thursday, calling for them to address school funding if they are all required to come back to Tallahassee for a special session on gambling issues.

"The Florida Education Association calls on Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders to address the shortfall in education funding before the start of the next fiscal year," reads a statement from the group, released Thursday. "With political will, the money can be found."

The statement follows a similar request made last week by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

The group pointed out that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $64 million's worth of projects in the 2018-2019 budget, money that will be kicked back to the state's general revenue account.

The FEA also references an agreement reached Wednesday between the state and the Seminole Tribe which guaranteed the tribe will pay $300 million in the next year to continue its exclusive right to offer banked card games like blackjack. However, the Legislature assumed the agreement would hold when it drafted its budget and therefore the $300 million is already spoken for.

In this year's budget, the per-pupil portion of classroom education funding saw an increase of only 47 cents, much lower than in previous years. And law enforcement and districts  have been scrambling since the Legislature required that every school have an armed person on every campus, whether that be a trained school staff member or a law enforcement officer.

Before the budget was passed in March, the state's superintendents and school leaders already asked the Legislature to increase the per-pupil spending. That didn't happen.

A decision over whether a special session will be held is expected by early next week. If lawmakers do come back up to Tallahassee, either the governor or the House Speaker jointly with the Senate President have to specify the specific purpose or purposes of the special session. Unless they declare that education funding is part of that purpose, it's unlikely the FEA's requests would be addressed.

When asked if Gov. Scott would include education funding as part of the "call" for a special session, the governor's office disputed there is a shortfall in education funding.

April 09, 2018

A month after Legislature failed to act on #MeToo, report finds Florida lags on women’s pay

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek (right) and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, (center) both were sponsors of bills to combat sexual harassment during the 2018 session. The bills failed. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida women get smaller paychecks, participate in the workforce less often and have fewer professional or managerial jobs than the majority of their counterparts in other states, according to a report released Monday by several state and national groups.

Florida ranks near the bottom of the country for these metrics, and the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a national group which contributed to the report, gave Florida overall a "D+" for its overall performance on this issue. A state group called the Florida Women's Funding Alliance commissioned the report.

While the causes of these failures are complex, these findings came exactly a month after the Florida Legislature failed to address a problem that leadership from both chambers had said was a priority to fix: sexual harassment in the workplace.

"Research has shown that when women experience sexual harassment or worse in the workplace, the most common response is not to report it and take action to fix it — the most common response is they will quit or if they have series of experiences they'll leave the occupation entirely," said Julie Anderson, a senior research fellow for the Institute.

"So rather than staying in one place or advancing, the lateral moves and leaving contributes to the wage gap."

After the #MeToo movement hit the Florida Legislature with the disgraced departure of two male lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct, both Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran promised to address the issue.

But there were signs the bill, which would have established a sexual harassment task force and created stricter policies for state agencies and contractors, lacked momentum. Then the House attached its sexual harassment language to a broader ethics package the Senate had never heard in committee. The measure died in the Senate on the final night of the session.

"There is zero tolerance for sex harassment or any type of harassment … and that's already been implemented through our rules," Negron said outside the Senate chamber after it adjourned without taking up the bill. "The bill that came over from the House had deficiencies."

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, was a co-sponsor of the House's version and said after she began working on this issue, women came out of the woodwork and told her their horror stories of harassment, including having to leave their jobs because of it.

"The issue, for a lot of women, they are simply not going to tell," she said. "They are going to endure it or leave the workplace and that hurts our state, our work force and our families."

Monday's report, which analyzed Census data, also found the gender wage gap is much greater for black and Hispanic women, who make about 59 cents for every dollar white men earn.

Despite this bad news, Florida has one of the smallest gender wage gaps in the country — about 88 cents for every dollar a man makes — and is on track to be the first state to close it at the current rate.

How is that possible?

Because in Florida, men's wages are falling faster than women's, according to Census data. This trend is happening in other states and began as early as 1975, and was furthered by the disappearance of manufacturing and construction jobs — jobs held mostly by men.

"That's why we say it's only 'progress' in air quotes," Anderson said. "Because we want everyone's wages to go up."

April 02, 2018

Proposal to end hospitals' certificate of need system pulled from CRC

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A proposal that would have ended the state's certificate-of-need process for approving hospitals was withdrawn Monday, just before it was set to move into the next stage of consideration for the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.

Proposal 54, which was sponsored by Constitution Revision Commission member Frank Kruppenbacher, would have linked the approval process for new hospitals to infection rates at other hospitals in the area. By doing so, it would have no longer allowed to state to limit hospital growth through the current certificate of need process. The CON process currently requires the state to approve hospitals and other health care providers like nursing homes to add more sites or services.

The proposed amendment did not reference the long-running certificates of need process directly, but it would have prohibited limiting hospital growth in any counties with at least one hospital with an infection rate above the state average. Deregulating the hospital industry by restricting or removing the program has long been a priority for some leaders in the Republican-dominated Legislature and for Gov. Rick Scott, a past hospital executive.

When the proposal moved forward last month, Kruppenbacher — who Scott appointed to the seat — dismissed the possibility that such a measure might advance in the Legislature, saying overhauling the system had to happen through the CRC. The powerful 37-member committee meets once every 20 years to choose proposals to put directly before voters, which voters can then pass by a 60 percent majority.

He did not respond to requests for comment Monday on why the proposal was pulled before the commission meets this week to refine the language of the remaining proposed amendments.

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents public, nonprofit and teaching hospitals in the state, objected to the proposal and lauded its withdrawal Monday.

“Preserving Florida’s health care strategic planning process is vital for a strong safety net hospital system which provides the most highly specialized medical care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay,” said Lindy Kennedy, the group's executive vice president, in a statement. “With fewer commercially insured patients to help cover the costs of caring for the poor and uninsured, safety net hospitals would have been forced to cut vital services that benefit all Floridians, such as neonatal care, trauma, burn, and transplants."

The withdrawal is part of the further culling of dozens of proposal from the commission's consideration: Another health care proposal, which would have added a "bill of rights" for residents in long-term care facilities, was withdrawn last month after sponsor Brecht Heuchan conceded it was unlikely to have the votes in its current form.

No Casinos calls special session talk 'fictional crisis'; Tribe's lawyer says state loss of revenue is not imminent

CasinoFlorida legislative leaders are expected to decide this week whether to pursue a special session to expand slot machines in some counties while it asks the Seminole Tribe to renew its gaming deal with the state, but the head of the No Casinos effort on Monday called the idea a "last ditch effort by gambling interests" and a lawyer for the tribe s there is no need to hurry.

In a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, John Sowinski, president of the group that has put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that will inhibit gambling expansion, suggested it was "a fictional crisis manufactured by gambling lobbyists."

"The urgency of this matter is curious, since no facts have changed since the end of session that would now make this such an enormous priority that it could merit a call for a special session of the Legislature,'' he wrote. 

No Casinos has succeeded in getting enough signatures to put an amendment on the ballot to require a statewide vote to expand gambling options in Florida. If the measure succeeds, legislators will have less influence over all gaming decisions.

The amendment is backed by Disney Worldwide and the Seminole Tribe, both of which oppose any expansion outside of the tribe's seven existing casinos. The amendment exempts gaming expansion if it involves Indian tribes, such as the Seminoles and their Hard Rock casinos.

Last week, Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has been designated by Republicans to be next Senate president, announced they are considering a special session because of budget concerns that the tribe may withhold payments to the state because of a legal settlement they reached as a result of a lawsuit in federal court over designated player games at pari-mutuel facilities.

Under the settlement, the tribe agreed not to withhold the more than $300 million in annual payments it now gives the state as part of its compact to operate casinos on its seven reservations until the end of March.

The settlement gave the Legislature enough time to outlaw the games, which the court said violated the tribal compact. Lawmakers adjourned without passing any gaming legislation and nothing has changed, except a newfound concern about the tribe stopping payment. 

Barry Richard, the Tallahassee lawyer who has argued the cases for the Seminole Tribe, told the Herald/Times Monday "the only reason the tribe would terminate payment is if they think there is a substantial impact on their financial circumstances, or they think they are paying too much money for the exclusivity -- given that it's been infringed upon. Then, they would terminate or reduce the payments."

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation has been working to enforce the settlements, closing down designated player games at pari-mutuels that operated them, and "the tribe is satisfied that DBPR has been acting aggressively,'' Richard said. 

However, a new threat to the tribe's bottom line has emerged: a new kind of slot-machine look-alikes that have proliferated at strip malls and convenience stores. The tribe is now suing the owners of those games and their landlords in Jacksonville and, Richard said, it is likely the tribe will let those lawsuits play out before it would withhold payments to the state. Those cases are not set for trial until June. 

But, Richard added, "something is going to have to happen. They are not going to let these machines proliferate."

So is there a need for a special session? 

Richard said the tribe is always open to listening. "If the legislature wants to bring them a proposal that's been signed off on by everybody, they are happy to look at it,'' he said. 

But, he warned, "the tribe doesn't want to have non-productive conversation with one chamber or the legislature, or some members of leadership, and then have it go back to others who disagree with it."

Galvano confirmed Monday that he has not had any substantial talks with the tribe about the compact. 

Meanwhile, Sowinski notes that many perceive the talk of a special session is more about the potential for legislators to raise money from the parimutuel industry, who are among the most reliable contributors in the state.  Corcoran is a likely candidate for governor and several others are pursuing state Cabinet positions and could benefit from a special session that would attract the industry's money.

But, Sowinski argued, convening a special session could have the opposition effect if the industry wants to defeat the proposed amendment. 

"You can tell the gambling interests and assure the people of Florida that public policy is not for sale in Tallahassee by resisting gambling lobbyist pressure for a special session,'' Sowinski wrote. "Convening a special session that will be seen as a genuflection to the gambling industry would provide voters with a perfect illustration of why Amendment 3 is so badly needed."

Read Sowinski's letter here:  Download No Casinos letter re special session 4-2-18


March 30, 2018

Gov. Scott signs 'resign to run' bill, forcing lawmakers to choose to keep their seats or run for Congress

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks after the end of the legislative session at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee on March 11, 2018. Flanking Scott are Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron. Mark Wallheiser AP

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill that would require local and state lawmakers to resign from their current seats in order to run for Congress.

The so-called "resign to run" bill now forces nearly a half-dozen local and state lawmakers to choose between holding onto their current seats or take the risk of running for the Miami congressional seat that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from.

Scott also vetoed his first bill of the year, obscure legislation that involves expanding the Palm Beach County Housing Authority from five seats to seven.

Normally, seats on the board are filled by the governor, but the bill allowed the Palm Beach County Commission to fill the two new seats. County commissioners were pushing for the bill so they could have more oversight over the troubled agency.

But Scott vetoed it, saying that the new seats should be filled by the governor.

The governor on Friday signed HB 215, a motor vehicle bill which included a controversial amendment that allows Florida International University to open a road to its Biscayne Bay campus through an environmental preserve in North Miami.

The university had cited the Parkland shooting in its arguments that the current campus, which only has one road in and out, needed a second entry and exit point for school safety. Efforts to open up a second road through the preserve have been brought repeatedly before the Legislature since at least 2011.

Despite opposition from local officials, the FIU language was successfully added to the motor vehicle bill in the waning days of session.

Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

March 29, 2018

After data scandal, Florida attorney general's office wants in-person meeting with Facebook

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

One of Attorney General Pam Bondi's top deputies is demanding an in-person meeting with executives at Facebook to talk about the release of more than 50 million users' personal information.

In a Wednesday letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Bondi's Privacy Bureau chief, Patrice Malloy, wrote that she expects a meeting set up by the end of the week.

"Please contact me by the close of business on Friday, March 30, to arrange for a mutually agreeable location, date and time with the goal of facilitating further discussion regarding this time-sensitive matter," Malloy wrote.

She included a list of nine questions she wanted answered after the New York Times revealed that Facebook users' information was harvested by a company called Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

Malloy called the release "troubling," and she asked to know the type of data that Facebook released, whether the company was paid for the data, which third-party applications also used the data, and how Facebook learned its policies were violated.

Attorneys general in 37 other states and territories sent a similar letter to Zuckerberg earlier this week, but Bondi did not sign it. A spokeswoman for Bondi said the office wasn't given enough time to join the letter.

March 27, 2018

FDLE investigating missing hard drives from state Department of Revenue

Florida's Old Capitol, seen from North Monroe Street in Tallahassee.

State police are investigating the possible theft of three external hard drives containing personal information held by the Florida Department of Revenue.

In a press release, the department said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General were now investigating, after the drives were found missing from employee workstations in Tallahassee.

The department is "working swiftly to identify the information contained on these devices," which were used only by "authorized employees," the release states.

"If, after the full investigation, it is found that any employee did not take the proper steps to protect taxpayer information, they will be held accountable," the release states.

A department spokeswoman would not elaborate on the type of personal information contained on the drives, citing the ongoing investigation. The Department of Revenue collects taxes and manages the state's child support system.

March 26, 2018

Rick Scott signs bills requiring generators in nursing homes, assisted living facilities

SCOTT KEELER | Times Gov. Rick Scott describes what can be done further in Florida to avoid more shootings like the one in Parkland at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation today requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have backup generators, following the deaths of a dozen people at a Broward County nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma last year.

The bills require the facilities to keep backup generators capable of running air conditioners when the power goes out. They must provide at least 30 square feet of cool space for each resident - at a temperature of no more than 81 degrees - and keep several days worth of fuel on hand.

The bills made permanent emergency orders Scott put in place after the deaths at a Hollywood nursing home, where a dozen elders overheated and died.

"As we near the 2018 hurricane season, families can now know the facilities responsible for caring for their loved ones will have the resources needed to be fully prepared ahead of any potential storms," Scott said in a statement Monday.

Major school voucher expansion proposals won't be on November ballot

Commissioner Erika Donalds speaks during a CRC meeting last week on the floor of the Florida Senate. | Florida Channel

When the members of the Constitution Revision Commission were appointed by Florida's top political leaders, the list was full of prominent school choice advocates. It seemed the CRC was gearing up to amend Florida's constitution to finally allow for the major expansion of school vouchers the Legislature has long sought.

Instead, the 37-member commission dropped its two major voucher expansion proposals last week — and the CRC only meets every 20 years to determine constitutional amendments to put on the ballot.

"There is somewhat of a consensus this is going to be resolved by the courts," said CRC member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped found a charter school there. Her husband is state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican member from Naples.

"In both cases, I think there is great support for both of those ideas on the CRC which is what makes it even harder not to move forward with it ... (but) I try to step back and look at the big picture at what can only be fixed through the constitution."

Proposal 4 would have struck the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution — which prohibits public money from going to any religious institution, and thus any religiously affiliated private school.

After a short but robust debate on Wednesday, that proposal was "temporarily postponed."

Donalds said they will not bring it up again.

She also withdrew proposal 45, which would have added language to the constitution saying "nothing herein may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services ... that are in addition to the system of free public schools."

Both proposals would have paved the way for a major expansion of vouchers by the Legislature, which have so far been limited to students with particular needs, such as being low-income, a victim of bullying or having a disability.

Donalds said several recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the a decision last year allowing public money to go toward a playground at a church — have made school choice advocates confident that the justices will eventually undo the 2007 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Holmes, that declared the state's voucher program unconstitutional.

For that to happen, someone must again challenge Florida's voucher programs.

But any proposals that make it to the ballot in the general election must receive at least 60 percent support to make it into the constitution, and recent polling done by Clearview Research found that Proposal 4 fell far below that threshold. Clearview often does work for Democratic causes but this poll was not done for any particular client, according to president Steven Vancore.

Only 41 percent of respondents said they would vote "yes" on the proposal and 51 percent of respondents declared they would vote "no." The research firm did not conduct polling on proposal 45.

The Florida Education Association opined that the polling was more likely the reason for the proposals' removal from consideration by the CRC. A similar amendment was also on the ballot in 2012 and it was defeated.

"There was no reason to submit the same proposal to the voters again especially after  polling was released that shows the voters really haven’t changed their minds on funding religious programs," said FEA president Joanne McCall.

Whatever the reason, Floridians won't be voting on voucher expansion on November's ballot. Instead, the remaining education proposals include term limits for school board members and a program for high-performing districts to have charter-like flexibility on certain regulations for hiring and facilities.