House Speaker Will Weatherford said Wednesday that his brother Peter had cancer treatment as a child covered by the state's Medically Needy program for people who can't afford care, but that it reinforced his belief that an expansion of Medicaid isn't needed.
Weatherford brought up the story of his brother, who died at 13 months old when Weatherford was a teenager, in his speech a day earlier opening the legislative session, before forcefully arguing against expanding Medicaid.
He mentioned that his family had needed a "safety net" to pay for Peter's care as a way of assuring people that he believes in having a medical safety net available for people because his family benefitted from it.
The state-funded Medically Needy program covers people who have huge medical bills but may not be poor enough or otherwise eligible to qualify for Medicaid. Often it is used by people who have long ongoing care needs and spend down all their income to the point that they're essentially "made poor." For example, many organ transplant patients who aren't Medicaid eligible, often end up using the Medically Needy program.
"The hospital bills that accumulated from the wonderful care Peter received were insurmountable," Weatherford said in a statement he released Wednesday, a day after his speech. "We did not have health insurance because we couldnt afford it.
"As I stated yesterday, I believe in the safety net," Weatherford said. "My family benefitted from the safety net. Children living in poverty today are offered coverage under Medicaid or Kidcare in Florida. Expanding Medicaid will not extend coverage to a single low-income child under 18 in Florida because they are already covered, just like Peter was."
Weatherford had been asked after his speech on Tuesday whether it was government help or private sector charity that had helped his family pay for the care, and he didn't answer the question directly.
He told reporters Tuesday that his family wasn't on Medicaid. The Tampa Bay Times reported on Wednesday, however, that Weatherford's father said in an interview that he believed the family had been on Medicaid, but Weatherford's statement said the family had gone back and checked and learned that it was the Medically Needy program.
"The state of Florida should always be looking for ways to strengthen the safety net," Weatherford said when questioned Tuesday about what he was trying to say by bringing up his family's difficulties. "So you have to be careful before you commit the state to a long-term fiscal commitment like what Medicaid expansion could be for our state. That is a big deal."
Weatherford is leading legislative opposition to expanding Medicaid to cover more uninsured under a push by the federal government under the new federal health-care law sometimes called "Obamacare." The federal government has said it will pay for the coverage of the new Medicaid enrollees for the first three years, with the state gradually picking up some of the cost after that.
Weatherford, and many other Republicans, however, say they're not convinced the federal government can pay the bill.
GOP Gov. Rick Scott, however, is pushing for expanding Medicaid for the three years that Washington has said it will pay for, with a re-evaluation at that point, setting up a battle between legislative Republicans and Scott.
Scott also mentioned a personal story involving his little brother during his State of the State address on Tuesday that he said convinced him expanding Medicaid was the right thing to do.
His brother needed expensive care too, that Scott's family couldn't afford.
"As I wrestled with this decision, I thought about my mom and her struggles to get my little brother the care he needed with little money," Scott said. "I concluded that for the three years the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care."
Weatherford said the questions over the details of his family's struggles to pay its medical bills when he was a kid were a distraction from his underlying point about how he identified with the uninsured.
"Now that the safety net that benefitted my family has been clearly identified, I trust that the debate can return to the important question of Medicaid expansion and its impact on the economic and personal freedom of Floridians," Weatherford said Wednesday.
A special House committee has already voted not to expand Medicaid, but the Senate hasn't taken any votes on the question yet. The issue could likely be part of just about any bill involving Medicaid this session, so its defeat in a House committee isn't necessarily the final end of the question.