Fla. consumer advocate urges health care action

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A consumer advocate urged Florida insurance officials on Thursday to seek public comment on essential health care benefits under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Laura Goodhue, the consumer representative on the Florida Health Insurance Industry Advisory Board, made her appeal at a meeting of the panel, which focused on other aspects of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law.

The board, made up mainly of insurance industry and business representatives, did not take public testimony on the law's essential health care benefits provision, but the state has received some written comments and will keep the record open so more can be submitted, said Deputy Insurance Commissioner Michelle Robleto.

States have the flexibility to implement essential health benefits under the law beginning in 2014. They include hospitalization, prescription drugs, mental health, maternity and newborn care and emergency services.

Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, a health advocacy organization, said patients, providers and employers should have a role in making those decisions.

"It really should be made with public input and not unilaterally and not behind closed doors," Goodhue said.

Plans to accept comment are fine but the state should first advance some proposals so the public can react to them, she said. Goodhue acknowledged federal officials have yet to issue formal regulations on the essential benefits, but she said they have provided enough informal guidance for the state to begin developing proposals.

Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act, has announced he doesn't intend to expand the state-federal Medicaid program for low-income and disabled patients. The Supreme Court ruled the federal government cannot force the states to implement that part of the law.

The board also heard from representatives of a private health insurance industry group, a state agency that oversees Florida's Medicaid program and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Many of their comments were hypothetical depending on whether the law stands or is repealed if Obama is defeated and Republicans regain control of the Senate in the November election.

Edmund Haislmaier, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, predicted many employers will find ways to drop health care coverage for their workers if the law remains on the books.

Some aspects already have gone into effect such as requiring insurers to cover children's pre-existing conditions. The most far-reaching elements, including a requirement for most people to buy health insurance coverage, will not go into effect until 2014.

"We're going to see fewer products and fewer options, which I don't think is good ultimately for Floridians," the board's chairman, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, said after the meeting.

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