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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Joe Brown Columns

Showing an indifference to the poor

My mother and one of my sisters decided a few months ago that a good way to celebrate Mama’s birthday would be to spend a week visiting her oldest son for a week or so. I could certainly think of better ways for them to spend their time, but if that’s their idea of a good time, so be it.

They wisely decided that spending the whole visit at my place would get old quickly, so they asked me to choose a place on one of Pinellas’ Gulf beaches where they could spend a few days and get a taste of the Florida that draws millions of tourists annually. I picked a hotel on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach that was right across the street from a Publix and other businesses where they could shop and dine without the need of a car. They thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

They talked mostly about how helpful the staff was at the hotel, and how the workers at the shops and restaurants were so friendly and attentive. They were talking about the people who are the backbone of Pinellas County’s thriving tourist industry, most of whom make minimum wage or just above it. Many would classify them as the working poor.

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While Mom and Sis praised these workers, my thoughts drifted back three months to a protest that got little attention, but highlighted how the Florida Legislature has ignored those who make up the state’s service economy.

Back in March while the Legislature was in session, about 20 demonstrators protested outside the office of state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, at 66th Street and 18th Avenue North urging the lawmaker to change her mind about expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They were low-wage workers and students, people who fall through the “doughnut hole” of eligibility. Their protests, however, fell on deaf ears since state leaders for the second time refused to accept $51 billion in federal Medicaid expansion funds.

Peters responded by saying there were better alternatives to help those who can’t qualify for Medicaid than expanding it. So what are they? And why didn’t the Legislature do something?

I recently emailed my state senator, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, for an explanation of why the Legislature continues to refuse billions of dollars that will end up going to another state, but I’ve yet to receive a reply.

The fact is that it’s hard to get a consistent reason from Republican lawmakers on why they oppose Medicaid expansion. House Speaker Will Weatherford says it’s because we can’t trust “Washington’s math” in the long run. Senate President Don Gaetz added that Medicaid is a broken program that all involved — patients, taxpayers and providers — are unhappy with. Even if they believe that, they still have provided no alternative to cover the estimated 760,000 Floridians who don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford health insurance.

So determined were Florida officials not to abide by the ACA that they refused to even create health care exchanges, which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed when it upheld the constitutionality of the law. The state has even banned “navigators” at county health departments from helping residents sign up for coverage. This goes beyond disdain for Obamacare; it’s total indifference to the poor, most of whom work.

Obamacare didn’t create “death panels” as many warned it would, but state lawmakers seem to be trying to form their own indirectly.

Republicans are determined to repeal the ACA. Fine, but that’s not going to happen while Barack Obama is in office because he will veto it, and there won’t be enough votes to override it. So its going to be the law of the land for about another three years at least, and people, not politics, should come first.

It could literally be a matter of life and death.

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