TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott Friday made another in a series of appearances in Tampa that are technically on official business but which have strong political overtones -- this one to push his anti-Obamacare message and his contention that President Barack Obama “cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare.”
In a forum at a Tampa retirement home with a half-dozen elderly Medicare recipients, Scott repeated that phrase several times and urged the attendees to “get active politically.”
He didn’t mention his likely Democratic opponent for re-election in November, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
In his campaign advertising, however, Scott is using the same message against Crist, who supports the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare.
Scott, who attended a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington in February, told the elderly attendees at the Tampa gathering that when he saw Obama, “I said, you need to stop these cuts in Medicare Advantage to pay for Obamacare because I’m hearing from seniors in our state that they’re losing their doctors and their (health insurance) plans are changing.”
The forum occurred a week after Scott’s re-election campaign released a web ad calling Crist “the only candidate in America who is giving Obamacare the full embrace,” saying the health reform program “has already cancelled health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Floridians and raided Medicare at the expense of 1.3 million Florida seniors” enrolled in the Advantage plan.
It also followed the narrow defeat of Democrat Alex Sink in a special congressional election in Pinellas County after a campaign in which Republican David Jolly linked her to the Affordable Care Act using as similar message.
Scott asked the attendees Friday to describe problems with their Advantage plans.
Several told stories about having to change doctors or coverage plans because doctors were dropped from their plans, or about costs for prescriptions going up.
Gilda Atkins, a resident of Horizon Bay at Hyde Park, where the gathering was held, said her doctor left the practice she used because of changes in insurance coverage, and prescription co-pays increased. She had to switch medications.
“We’ve reached the point in our lives where we shouldn’t be worried, but we’re all worried, We don’t want to be indigent,” she said.
Mari Velar of Tampa said she “got letters saying your doctors were gone.”
She said she was able to find another Medicare Advantage plan that includes her eye specialist, but drugs are more expensive under the new plan.
She said federal budget cuts should come from elsewhere, suggesting the food stamp program.
“These people are taking away from you so they can go to the grocery story with their (food stamp) cards and have their steak dinners,” she said.
Austin Curry of Tampa, founder of an elderly advocacy group, arranged the gathering and praised Scott for opposing the cuts.
He said cuts to programs helping the elderly are “morally and ethically reprehensible ... it’s frightening and discouraging in the final days of their lives to be confronted with such,” and praised Scott for opposing the cuts.
More than a third of Florida’s Medicare recipients are enrolled in Advantage plans, in which the government contracts with private insurers to provide their Medicare coverage.
The program was set up in hope that private market competition would make it cost less, but the opposite happened. On average, Advantage enrollees cost the government 14 percent more than traditional Medicare recipients, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Some Advantage plans offer benefits not covered by traditional Medicare, including dental and vision coverage.
The Affordable Care Act reduces the expected increases in Advantage program costs $156 billion over 10 years by lowering payments to providers, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Similar cuts were included the budget plan pushed by House Republicans and authored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
It’s not yet clear how those cuts, or reductions in planned increases, which are now about halfway phased in, will affect the plans, said Tricia Neuman, director of the non-partisan, non-profit Kaiser Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy.
“So far there have been no major changes,” she said. “Premiums have been flat; some plans have left the market, but others have come in. Enrollment has climbed.”
But, she said, some plans have raised out-of-pocket cost limits for enrollees, and news accounts tell of physicians being cut from the plans.
The Obama administration said the cuts to Advantage were needed to fund increases in other Medicare services -- closing the “donut hole” in prescription drug coverage, and making preventive services free of co-pays.
But Scott told reporters after the meeting, “These seniors have paid for this. It’s not fair to them to be cutting Medicare Advantage to pay for Obamacare.”
As his re-election battle with Crist begins, people in the Tampa area -- Crist’s home turf and a politically crucial swing area -- are getting used to seeing Scott arrive with good news and state money.
♦ Two weeks ago, he visited Tampa International Airport to announce $194 million for improvements there.
♦ One week ago, he visited the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to announce an extra $1.8 million for local child protective services.
♦ In January, he announced $131 million for an elevated connector from U.S. 19 to I-275.