Florida Senate approves $800 million health care package

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Senate unanimously approved Thursday an $800 million plan to increase access to medical care by training and hiring more doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

The Live Healthy Act, a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, includes millions of dollars in tuition assistance for medical, nursing and dental students, as well as loans to build clinics and create a statewide health screening portal. It was pushed through quickly in the early days of the session.

“This is the most comprehensive, impactful and creative health care bill I have ever seen,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who has served 22 years in the Legislature and chaired various health care committees.

Both bills that make up the plan, SB 7016 and SB 7018, were approved 39-0 after amendments cut $70 million in tuition and educational aid and $25 million for a revolving loan fund for innovative health care programs.

It still has to be taken up by the House before being sent to the governor for his consideration.

“It is one of the highlights of my legislative career to shepherd this legislation,” said Sen. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland. “We are all universally concerned about access to medical care in Florida. This will help enormously.”

The Senate passed an amendment introduced by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, renaming the Live Healthy Act after Passidomo’s father, Dr. Alfonse Cinotti, who died in September at age 100.

“For my entire life my dad used to say whatever you do in this life … no matter what you do, you’ve got to give back,” Passidomo said, choking back tears. “I miss my dad a lot, but his legacy is in this bill.”

Burton said the plan was the product of the work of several senators, both Republican and Democratic, over many months. Despite some concerns about how low-income people would get medical care, rural access and the safety of advanced birthing clinics, the bill has received unanimous, bipartisan support.

The main bill, SB 7016, focuses on growing the medical workforce in Florida and expanding access to treatment regardless of insurance status. The biggest criticism from Democrats is that it doesn’t accept an expansion of Medicaid that would give the state $14.3 billion over five years to provide care for up to 1 million additional Floridians.

It includes incentives to get medical workers to volunteer at free clinics, and to direct patients from emergency rooms to urgent-care centers, federally qualified health centers and free health clinics. It would raise the eligibility rate for families to go to free clinics from 200% to 300% of the federal poverty level.

It also provides a plan to establish advanced birthing centers that can provide low-cost cesarean deliveries, and provides millions to teaching hospitals and to telehealth for minority maternity care.

The package includes $258 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for dental care, private duty nurses, occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy, behavioral analysis, and hospitals that provide maternal care for mothers and their babies.

The second bill, SB 7018, would create a $50 million revolving fund to provide low-interest loans for health innovation efforts, $25 million less than originally proposed.

It also creates a Health Care Innovation Council.

“This is part of the whole game-changer that we do with health care in Florida,” Harrell said.