The Florida Senate’s “Live Healthy” plan aims to expand access to health care

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and two key lieutenants unveiled a plan Thursday aimed at expanding access to health care, with an emphasis on increasing the number of doctors, encouraging technological innovation and increasing medical screenings.

The legislative package calls for nearly $900 million to be spent on, among other things, moving patients out of emergency rooms, offsetting hospital training costs and helping doctors pay off debt.

Speaking to reporters, Passidomo called the plan a “very, very sound” package with “very creative concepts that will help address workforce needs” as the state’s population continues to grow.

“As you know, about 1,000 people a day move to the state of Florida, many of them older. Everyone needs healthcare. Today in Florida, we don’t have enough health care personnel to care for the Floridians who live here,” said Passidomo, R-Naples. “So our whole goal is how do we grow our health care system in Florida, our workforce, and that’s how we got started.”

The detailed bills were to be filed Friday, and the Senate Health Policy Committee will consider the proposals next week, Passidomo said.

The effort to increase access to health care comes as more than 11 percent of Floridians lack insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only four states had higher uninsured rates than Florida in 2022, according to a September report. Rates reflect insurance provided in employer plans and purchased privately, along with coverage through government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

Democrats have long called for expanding Medicaid eligibility, but Republicans have rejected the idea — with Passidomo repeating his opposition Thursday.

“It’s just a talking point. Everyone will be seen. We just want to make sure they get the quality — efficiently, effectively and economically,” Passidomo said. “Right now it’s just a topic of conversation. Medicaid expansion is not working and we will take care of everyone. … We are already paying for a lot.”

House Minority Leader Fentris Driskel, D-Tampa, called the Senate plan disappointing.

“Every Floridian deserves the freedom to be healthy, prosperous and safe, and that certainly includes being able to access high-quality, affordable health care,” Driskell told reporters. “And in Florida, that necessarily means expanding Medicaid. It’s completely disingenuous for our fellow Republicans to call it just “a talking point that won’t do anything.”

Driskell said Florida is among only 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. The state could draw $4 billion in federal money by expanding a joint state-federal program for low-income people, Driskell said.

However, the Senate’s Live Healthy plan would expand lower-income Floridians’ access to free and charity clinics by raising the income eligibility threshold.

The Senate proposal also seeks to expand or create programs to divert people from emergency rooms and get more people screened for medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

As an example, the plan would require hospitals to help patients “access appropriate care” in non-emergencies and encourage patients to establish a “medical home” to prevent future emergency room visits for non-emergencies. Hospitals, for example, could refer patients to urgent care facilities or primary care practices nearby.

“Our big goal is for every Florida resident to have a medical home, to have a primary care doctor that they can go to the next time they have a fever instead of going through the doors of an emergency room where we know a lot of people just they’re not comfortable anyway, but they don’t think they have another option or they can’t make an appointment with a doctor, so they go into the emergency room,” said Senate Health Policy Chair Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican, who participated in Thursday’s rollout.

The plan would also require the Agency for Health Care Management to seek federal approval of a program called “Hospital at Home,” which would allow Medicaid beneficiaries to receive hospital care at home. The plan also aims to increase access to mental health care, in part by expanding mobile response teams to reduce the number of people targeted by the Baker Act, which can include involuntary institutionalization.

The legislation also addresses “maternity deserts” in rural areas. The proposal would create an “advanced birth center” designation, allowing certain birth centers to perform low-risk births, including C-sections, and reduce regulations for autonomous nurse midwives.

The proposal aims to increase the health workforce by taking steps such as:

  • Making it easier for foreign-trained physicians to practice in Florida.
  • Expanding loan repayment assistance for doctors and dentists who stay in the state after graduation. Grant recipients will be required to commit to serving Medicaid patients and providing volunteer services.
  • Creation of a new, limited license for medical school graduates who have passed their exams but not started residency programs.

The Senate also wants to bolster the state’s graduate medical education program by creating 700 new residency slots through increased funding for what’s known as the Florida Physicians Program.

Passidomo told The News Service of Florida that the state needs more slots in residency programs and that she would like to see “Florida-trained” doctors fill more jobs.

“We have more students graduating from medical schools in Florida than we have residency slots. That doesn’t make sense. Then they have to leave the country. The moment they leave the state, they meet someone, get married and then they don’t come back,” Passidomo said.

The Legislative Office for Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability has issued a series of recommendations for graduate retention, including giving Florida medical schools incentives to prioritize in-state students when referring graduates to health care facilities.

The Senate proposal would also create a “Healthcare Innovation Council” to help oversee a proposed low-interest loan program designed to “stimulate innovation,” said Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chair Gail Harrell, R -Stewart, to reporters during Thursday’s launch.

The Senate wants to spend $75 million a year on the program — which Passidomo said would be the first in the nation — over the next decade. Interest rates will not be higher than 1 percent, Harrell said.

“I think this is the most creative and innovative way to use our entire system to put this patient at the center of health care, using new ideas, creative things and changing the health care system in Florida,” she said.

News staff writer Ryan Daly contributed to this report.

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