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OPINION: doing 'as much harm as possible' to Florida's insured

Republicans continue to fight Obamacare in Sunshine State

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First do no harm. That’s a tenet of medical ethics that future doctors worldwide are taught in medical school.

If only the people we elect to represent us were required to take such an oath when they’re sworn into office.

Because they aren’t, folks in Florida are facing having to pay far more for health insurance over the next two years than necessary. And health insurance executives will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Florida state lawmakers, in their ongoing efforts to block the implementation of Obamacare in the Sunshine State, recently passed a law that will allow health insurance companies to gouge Floridians more than any corporate boss dreamed was possible.

And if that weren’t bad enough, insurers will actually be required by law to mislead their Florida customers about why they’re hiking their premiums.

Republicans, who control the governor’s office as well as both houses of the Florida legislature, were confident the U.S. Supreme Court would declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Not only did they vote to prohibit the state from spending money to implement a law they just knew would be overturned by the high court, they refused to accept money from the federal government that would have enabled the state’s department of insurance to do a better job of regulating health insurers and enforcing new consumer protections in the law.

When the Supreme Court shocked Obamacare opponents last year by upholding the law, Florida lawmakers were in a pickle.

Their response? They passed a bill that prohibits the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation from protecting consumers from unreasonable rate increases for two years.

I learned about what is essentially a “first do as much harm as possible” bill in a letter the nine Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation sent to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius earlier this month pleading with her to step in to protect Floridians by taking an active role in regulating rate increases in the state.

The lawmakers said intervention by HHS was urgently needed because of a law signed in May by Gov. Rick Scott that specifically prohibits Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty from doing his job of reviewing rate increases and rejecting those he and his staff determine are unjustifiably high.

Until the passage of SB 1842, McCarty had the power to do that. Florida state lawmakers who voted for the bill, including a few Democrats who seemed to think HHS has more authority than it does, took the position that since the federal government was requiring insurance companies to be more consumer friendly, the federal government should assume the responsibility of enforcing the new consumer protections in Obamacare. The problem is that Congress gave the federal government no such additional powers. As a consequence, HHS really can’t take over what is still a state responsibility. And since Florida turned down the federal money that McCarty would have used to do his job, Floridians appear to be out of luck.

Last month, McCarty’s office said insurance premiums for individuals in Florida would be significantly higher than they are now. In their letter to Sebelius, the state’s congressional Democrats wrote that those increases are “not a coincidence, but rather the product of a cynical and intentional effort by Gov. Scott and the Florida legislature to undermine the Affordable Care Act and make health insurance premiums on the Florida Health Insurance Marketplace more expensive by refusing to allow the insurance commissioner to negotiate lower rates with companies or refuse rates that are too high.”

As PolitiFact noted in a recent analysis of the charges made by the Democrats in their letter (which PolitiFact ruled are true), the states that have authority to approve or disapprove rates were “able to extract significant reductions.” PolitiFact cited a Palm Beach Post story which noted that Maryland’s insurance department had used its regulatory powers “to push rates for next year’s premiums down by as much as a third.”

As Florida CHAIN, a state advocacy group, pointed out when Scott signed SB 1842, the law not only blocks McCarty’s office from protecting consumers, a provision in the law actually requires insurers to send deceptive and misleading notices about rate increases to consumers — and to blame Obamacare for them.

“The only ’public education’ of any sort authorized by the Legislature related to the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is a requirement … that insurers send extremely biased and incomplete notices this fall about the ACA and its effect on policyholders’ rates,” Florida CHAIN said in a statement.

“The sole purpose of the requirement is to create ‘sticker shock’ that can be blamed on the ACA. There will be no mention of the many uncertainties or any other relevant factors, such as past rate increases or how actual rates will be reduced for many by the availability of premium tax credits (to low and middle income earners.)”

So not only will many Floridians be harmed by SB 1842, they will, by law, be misled about who caused the harm.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the oath of office for people we vote to represent us.