Siri-Like Voice Echoes as Florida Lawmakers Clash Over Medicaid

Imagine Siri, the virtual personal-assistant application for Apple Inc.’s iPhone, on speed. That’s what democracy sounds like in Florida right now.

For the second day, Florida House Democrats are protesting the Republican majority’s refusal to expand Medicaid, as envisioned by President Barack Obama’s health-care law, by requiring all bills on the floor be read in full. Republican Speaker Will Weatherford responded by using Microsoft Corp.’s text-to-speech software bought when Marco Rubio, now a U.S. Senator, presided over the chamber in 2007, the last time Democrats employed the tactic.

The software’s robotic female voice, named Mary, is set to a speed of 45 seconds per page, making each word barely understandable. At that pace, it would take five-and-a-half hours to read the 421-page, $74.5 billion budget, which lawmakers haven’t yet approved.

The setback in Tallahassee, the capital, has created gridlock in the final days of the state’s annual spring lawmaking session ending May 3. The slowdown has already delayed debate or final votes on nine bills, said Ryan Duffy, Weatherford’s spokesman.

“It’s the most important thing we do during the session, hands down,” Representative Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader, told reporters yesterday about the slowdown. “There will be a lot of bills that will be lost. But people who need health care know that we’re fighting.”

Expansion Blocked

Legislative committees in both the Florida House and Senate last month rejected expansion of Medicaid, the program for the poor funded by the federal government and states. The action marked a defeat for Republican Governor Rick Scott at the hands of his own party. Scott, who started his political career by financing a Tea Party group that opposed Obama’s health law, changed his position after the November presidential election.

The Senate approved a bill yesterday that would use federal funds to provide vouchers for about 1 million low-income Floridians qualifying for the expanded Medicaid program to buy private policies. Scott has said he supports the Senate plan.

The House proposal would provide about 126,800 residents with $2,000 a year to buy private insurance. The House plan costs the state about $237 million per year.

“They can’t stop the process, but they can slow it down,” Weatherford said. “We’re OK with taking our time.”

Eight Governors

At least eight of 30 Republican governors have backed Medicaid expansion. Of those, the five in states where their party also controls the legislature -- Scott, Arizona’s Jan Brewer, Ohio’s John Kasich, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota -- are facing the toughest opposition. These clashes show how difficult it will be for Obama to get his Medicaid plan widely adopted.

An estimated 3.35 million of Florida’s 19.1 million residents will receive Medicaid this year, according to the legislature’s Office of Economic and Democratic Research.

An expansion under the federal law -- which increases eligibility for a family of four earning as much as $31,800 this year -- would expand the number by 1.28 million during the next 10 years, according to a November report from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, a nonprofit group that researches health care.

Republicans Object

Obama’s health law, which passed Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote, may extend insurance over the next decade to about 27 million people who are currently uninsured. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 8 million more will enroll in Medicaid programs next year because of the expansion.

Expansion in Florida would cost the federal government an estimated $66.1 billion during the next 10 years, according to the Kaiser report. The state’s cost during that time would be about $5.36 billion, according to the report.

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