TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- It turns out that the state of Florida has yet another major decision to make in the next few months when it comes to the federal health care overhaul.
The state may be forced to make sweeping changes to its health insurance program for state workers if it wants to avoid paying substantial penalties required under the law pushed by President Barack Obama.
Officials who run the health insurance program told legislators on Wednesday that Florida could be on the hook for a $300 million a year penalty unless it suddenly agrees to start covering part-time employees who work at least 30 hours a week.
Florida currently doesn't offer health care benefits to thousands of part-time employees because it's against state law. But under the federal health care overhaul, the state in January 2014 must start covering those part-timers or risk the fine.
Barbara Crosier, director of the Division of State Group Insurance, said the latest estimates show that there are 2,200 part-timers who work at least 30 hours in state agencies and another 4,700 part-time employees working at the state's public universities.
The cost to cover those part-time employees would be $23.5 million in the next year with the cost rising to nearly $49 million by 2015. But it's an expense that would come at the same time that the state health insurance program is projected to be in the red. The latest estimates project the program could have a deficit of more than $260 million two years from now.
Florida overall spends $1.9 billion a year on health insurance for its employees, their families and retirees. Most of that money comes from taxpayers and not from premiums or doctor visit co-payments.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and chairman of a House panel reviewing the federal health care overhaul, said lawmakers could pay for the part-time workers by raising premiums or changing benefits offered to full-time state workers. That's been a contentious issue in recent years especially since state legislators and even Gov. Rick Scott currently pay relatively low premiums for health coverage.
But Corcoran said other alternatives could be to pare back the number of people who work at least 30 hours a week or create a stand-alone health insurance plan that offers different benefits from those offered to full-time state employees.
Lawmakers are expected during the 2013 session to deal with several items dealing with the federal care overhaul — including whether to expand Medicaid to cover families whose incomes are just above the poverty line.
The latest state estimates show that overall, the health care overhaul could cost the state's health insurance plan by as much as $73 million in the coming year and $137 million by 2015.
Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said legislators should be consider the money they could be saving in other parts of the state budget if they cover part-time workers. She said those part-timers could be costing the state through emergency room visits that are ultimately covered by taxpayers anyway.
"Where are people going to get their health care now?" she asked.
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