Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has become the Obama administration's envoy to Florida on behalf of the Affordable Care Act. She has visited the state half a dozen times since June, trying to get the word out to the state's millions of uninsured to sign up for a health plan. This week she visited the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, where Health News Florida editor Carol Gentry spoke with her.
CG: All right, so I want you to tell me, if you could talk directly to uninsured people in Florida, what would you say, what’s your message for them?
KS: The Affordable Care Act is a brand-new opportunity to have health security for yourselves and your families. That most uninsured eligible Floridians will qualify for some financial help from the federal government to purchase health insurance since you don’t have affordable health insurance through the workplace.
If you work part-time, if you’re a self-employed entrepreneur, if you run a family farm, if you’ve been out of the market because you’re locked out because of a preexisting condition or priced out because of health coverage just being too high, this is an opportunity to get affordable health care. We have a 26-week open-enrollment period that lasts all the way 'til March 31 --.
CG: Let me break in—So your primary message would be: Take a deep breath, give us a couple days, it will be ready?
KS: Oh absolutely, it’s ready now. People are enrolling now. We just don’t have the ease of enrollment that we hoped to have within a couple of days through the website. But calling the toll-free hotline at 800- 318-2596 -- that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, up to 150 languages can be spoken -- going to Healthcare.gov the website or finding a local navigator here in Florida.
Community health centers all have trained outreach and enrollment folks. There are navigators on the ground. You can find somebody in your neighborhood to help you.
CG: Let me ask you about what you would say to legislators in FL if you had the opportunity.
KS: I would say there is a financial offer on the table where the federal government would pay for 100% of uninsured Floridians who are below 133% of poverty, 100% for first three years and gradually reduce that to a 90-10 share. That’s a huge investment in Florida. Over $51 billion from the federal government would come in over the next 10 years, paid for --
CG:--You said it doesn’t come from the deficit?
KS: It does not at all. The Affordable Care Act is entirely paid for within the Affordable Care Act (Editor’s note: through industry taxes and reductions in spending) and it has not added a dime to the deficit. So that’s money on the table, that’s an offer for Florida.
I can tell you as a former governor, I would have loved to have had that offer when I was serving in Kansas because the opportunity to expand affordable health coverage for our lowest-income working families would have been really a gift to the state. So I’m hoping Florida legislators will follow Gov. Scott’s recommendation and expand Medicaid.
CG: So we’re losing $5 billion a year for every year that –
KS: You bet. And independent business studies have said there would be an additional $90 billion in economic development just generally in the state, new hires, new businesses, opportunities that the state could put tax dollars toward other things.
So, the offer’s open, there is no deadline for a state to come in, so I’m hoping when the Florida Legislature reconvenes in January –the bill passed the Senate, it failed in the House-- so hopefully they will take a new look at their return on investment.
CG: Thank you. KS: Sure.