A bid to cover roughly 1 million Floridians by expanding the state Medicaid program is in doubt after one of the state's top legislative leaders called it a social experiment "destined for failure."
House Speaker Will Weatherford used the opening day of the annual legislative session to denounce the idea of expanding the safety-net health insurance program. Within hours, Senate President Don Gaetz responded by suggesting that the Senate was unlikely to move forward in the face of such strong opposition.
"It sounds to me as if the House shut the lights out," Gaetz said.
The move is a stinging rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott, who even used his annual State of the State speech to call on legislators to expand Medicaid during the three years it is 100 percent federally funded. He repeated past statements that he could not "in good conscience" deny the uninsured access to care.
But during his brief opening day speech Weatherford told his own personal story of how his family lacked health insurance when he was growing up and the family was left with a "mountain of medical bills" due to his brother's unsuccessful fight against cancer.
The 33-year-old Republican from Wesley Chapel said despite that history that offering coverage to those who are just above the poverty line "crosses the line of the proper role of government." He said that the federal government was trying to "buy states off one by one."
"This inflexible plan, thrust upon us by the federal government, is not aimed at strengthening the safety net," he said. "It pushes a social ideology at the expense of our future."
Medicaid expansion is viewed as a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Florida led a legal challenge against the overhaul, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law although the court ruled that states could opt out of the expansion.
Scott is among a line of GOP governors who in recent weeks have said they would go along with the expansion. The governor's recommendation was denounced by other top Republicans in the state. A House panel on Monday also voted against the expansion.
Some Republican senators said that there still may be an alternative to Medicaid expansion that can be developed over the 59 days left in the session. Federal officials recently granted a waiver to Arkansas that allows Medicaid expansion by subsidizing private health insurance, rather than using the state Medicaid program.
"I think there is room in there for all of us to find a pathway," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.
Weatherford's forceful rejection of Medicaid expansion was just one highlight of the first day of the session that also included ceremonial pomp, protests and even some work.
The Senate passed a sweeping ethics package intended to crack down on errant public officials, while the House passed a measure intended to restore confidence in the state's elections system.
Gaetz, however, bypassed the usual opening day tradition of giving speech and said he wanted to spend time instead passing important legislation.
During his remarks Weatherford also vowed to pass a law this year that would grant in-state tuition rates to the children of immigrants who are in the country illegally. A federal court last fall ruled that charging higher tuition to those students violated their equal protection rights. The state decided against appealing the ruling.
"If you're born in America, you're an American," Weatherford said. "And to hold any other view completely contradicts everything that our country was founded upon."
The opening day usually guarantees a contingent of protesters. And they were present Tuesday.
About 100 college students showed up at the Capitol holding signs that said, "The state is ours," ''I am human" and "3/5 no more," a reference to a constitutional compromise that counted three-fifths of slaves for purposes of representation.
They were part of the Dream Defenders, a group that grew out of a protest march on the Sanford Police Department after the death of Trayvon Martin. The teenager was shot and killed in February 2012 by a community watchman in his father's neighborhood. The group is interested in a gamut of issues, including immigration and police brutality.
As Gov. Scott approached the House chamber door, the crowd outside began singing, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's won." Scott glanced over, grinned and waved a couple of times before going in.