By Steven Lemongello|Orlando Sentinel
To win election to the U.S. Senate, Gov. Rick Scott promised to protect patients with pre-existing health conditions and to fight for the people of Puerto Rico.
Now allies and political opponents alike are hoping Scott will follow through on his pledges when he gets to Washington.
“It’s frankly inconsistent for someone taking Senator-elect Scott’s position opposing [Obamacare] to say he wants to make sure pre-existing condition [protections] remain intact,” said Miriam Harmatz, executive director of the progressive Florida Health Justice Project. “It’s like taking one leg off a three-legged stool. It can’t be done.”
Scott made his name in 2009 by becoming one of the earliest critics of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which mandated that insurance companies couldn’t refuse to cover someone because of a pre-existing condition.
Insurance companies were able to absorb the increased costs through another Obamacare provision that required all adults to buy health insurance, but the penalty for not buying insurance was eliminated in the 2017 GOP tax bill.
With Scott as governor, Florida is part of a multistate lawsuit that seeks to have the pre-existing conditions provision declared unconstitutional.
But in an October campaign ad entitled, “It’s Personal,” Scott said, “I support forcing insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions,” surprising observers accustomed to Scott’s previous opposition to Obamacare.
Scott would not speak to the Orlando Sentinel for this story. Spokesman Chris Hartline said the governor’s pledge on pre-existing conditions, along with allowing young adults to stay on parents’ plans until age 26, is part of his overall plan for reforming health care. He said Scott supports removing Obamacare’s “excessive mandates and taxes” and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines to encourage competition.
Logan Elizabeth Padgett, spokesperson for The James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank based in Tallahassee, said making sure people with pre-existing conditions “have access to care is the fundamental goal of conservative health policy reform.”
“Getting people access to quality health care is not a partisan issue,” Padgett said. “Conservatives simply have the approach that protects access.”
Harmatz, though, said states that have tried to require pre-existing condition coverage without the individual mandate have failed.
“Insurance premiums, by necessity, went through the roof,” Harmatz said. “Insurance works by spreading risk. … If you don’t have some mechanism of bringing in young, healthy individuals, you’re going to have in the insurance pool a much sicker, more expensive population.”
Scott also won in part by building a base of support among Hispanics, particularly in the Puerto Rican community of Central Florida.
Besides his several trips to the island after Hurricane Maria’s destruction in 2017, Scott also has been a vocal supporter of statehood for the territory of 3.4 million people.
“Scott believes the will of the Puerto Rican people must be respected,” Hartline said, referring to the two referendums in 2012 and 2017 when Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood. “He will continue to do all he can in Florida and in D.C – exploring all legislative avenues – to fight for Puerto Rican families.”
The second referendum, however, was boycotted by statehood opponents, many of whom believe the island should become an independent nation.
Jimmy Torres Velez, founder of the Puerto Rican voter outreach group Boricua Vota and one of Scott’s most vocal critics in Central Florida, said the community “expects that the promises he presented, he will fulfill.”
“If he doesn’t introduce a bill asking the Senate to move on making Puerto Rico a state … that would be the first example that he was just bluffing the people of Puerto Rico,” Torres Velez said, adding that he thinks Scott could convince conservatives to support the idea. “Otherwise, he took Puerto Ricans for a ride.”
Some conservatives do worry Puerto Rican statehood would result in more Democratic senators and congresspeople in D.C., despite Republican Jenniffer Gonzelez serving as the island’s non-votingdelegate to Congress
Alfonso Aguilar, of the conservative group Latino Partnership, said Scott could provide a key Republican voice for island statehood.
“That’s an issue where Rick Scott can educate fellow Republicans and conservatives,” Aguilar said. “He’s aware how conservative [Puerto Ricans] are. Polling of Puerto Ricans on the island [shows they] support school choice, are pro-life, pro-family. … I think Puerto Rico would be a swing state, just like Florida is.”
Aguilar said statehood would help grow economies and create more jobs, citing the examples of Alaska and Hawaii becoming the last two states in 1959. It would also help entice investment if the current territorial “patchwork of laws” is streamlined.
“I think Rick Scott can make those arguments,” Aguilar said. “As the constitutional conservative he is, he knows it makes no sense to have 3.4 million people without full rights.”
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