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Pinellas House members say they would pay more for health insurance

ST. PETERSBURG — Three Pinellas County legislators who voted against accepting federal Medicaid money defended their heavily subsidized state health plans Tuesday but said they were open to footing more of the bill.

Reps. Larry Ahern, Ed Hooper and Kathleen Peters were among eight Pinellas legislators grilled Tuesday by members of Suncoast Tiger Bay. The three receive health insurance for $8.34 a month but voted against accepting billions of dollars in additional federal health care aid for poor Floridians.

The Tampa Bay Times noted the awkward juxtaposition in a Tuesday story.

"I don't mind paying more for that insurance," Ahern told a Times reporter after the 90-minute luncheon at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater Hotel.

House members pay $8.34 a month for individual health insurance, or $30 a month to cover a family. That's one-sixth of what members of the Senate and most state employees pay.

Taxpayers pay nearly $600 a month to cover each individual House member, according to the state. Lois Fries, a 73-year-old Democrat from Largo, seized on that and asked, "How do you justify that hypocrisy without expanding Medicaid?"

Ahern and Hooper, R-Clearwater, pointed to the national debt, saying Florida could not rely on the federal government. Peters, R-South Pasadena, stressed she voted against the Medicaid expansion alternative because there was never a focus on how it would work, not because of the federal money.

As far as her own health insurance, Peters noted that House members only make about $29,000 a year. Still, she said their low premiums are "not fair and equitable" compared with what state workers and others pay for health insurance.

In 2012, Florida senators agreed to increase premiums they pay to match most state employees. No one has explained why the House declined to follow the Senate.

"There just wasn't time to address every important issue that we had to deal with," Hooper said in an interview, blaming in part the Medicaid debate. Hooper said he would vote for a higher premium if there's a movement to "jack it up."

Aside from the health care debate, lawmakers talked about the $74.5 billion state budget and ribbed each other about who had the most hometown projects. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, joked that a Florida TaxWatch report on budget "turkeys," or wasteful projects, will have a chapter on Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

There was also an allusion to "Mary," the robotic House auto-reader that sped through legislative text for hours when Democrats forced all bills to be read in full. The time-killing move was in protest of House Republicans opposing Medicaid expansion.

"You guys disrespected (House Speaker Will Weatherford) with your trick of reading the bills on the floor," Hooper said. "He was hurt by that, and I think he certainly had a right to be hurt, and I wish that hadn't happened."

"I'm sorry, that's a good one," said an unrepentant Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg.

Pinellas House members say they would pay more for health insurance 05/14/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 9:41pm]
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