MIAMI (AP) -- The Obama Administration is dispatching its top health official to Florida three times in the coming days to promote the Affordable Care Act in a Republican-led state that has been increasingly resistant to carrying out the new federal health law.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' visit to Orlando on Friday comes days after Florida health officials ordered county health departments across the state to ban counselors trained to help sign people up for health insurance from conducting outreach on their property. The move brought harsh, swift criticism from Democrats who are already angry at Gov. Rick Scott and House Republican leaders for not expanding Medicaid.
"Instead of supporting families and helping them sign up for coverage, the state is doing everything it can to make it harder for Floridians to access the coverage they desperately need," HHS spokesman Fabien Levy said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Florida has been among the most resistant of the red states to implement the Affordable Care Act. Scott entered politics in 2009 running national cable TV commercials criticizing President Barack Obama's health care plan. The state filed a lawsuit challenging the provisions of the health care plan just minutes after Obama signed the bill into law in 2010. Earlier this year, the Republican-led Legislature also voted to temporarily cede its authority to negotiate rates with insurers to the federal government, potentially making it more difficult for the state to bargain for cheaper rates.
Despite what they called "shameful attempts by the state to block the law," federal health officials said the new online state exchange where families and small businesses can shop for health insurance will be ready to launch on Oct. 1.
"We are doubling down on our efforts to reach Floridians and ensure they know the truth about the benefits that they are entitled to and how to access the coverage they need," Levy said.
Sebelius planned to announce a partnership with CVS on Friday, piggy backing on similar deals with Walgreens and Rite Aid to help promote so-called "Obamacare". Insurance agents will be onsite in thousands of stores across the country for free consultations to help people sift through plans. The drugstores will also carry brochures and post details on their websites about how to enroll in the exchange.
State Representative Victor Torres Jr., D-Orlando, said he was "outraged by the decision of Governor Rick Scott's administration to make it harder for Floridians to get the information they need to attain affordable health care" adding that more than one-third of Florida's Hispanic community lacks insurance.
Sen. Dwight Bullard said the decision to ban counselors, also known as navigators from county health departments, hurts the people who most need the help.
"This is just another example of Republican Governor Rick Scott punishing real people to advance his true agenda," he said in a statement.
Democrats from the Florida U.S. Congressional delegation called on the governor Friday to lift what they called a "harmful, spiteful ban" immediately.
The goal of navigators "is to reach as many uninsured or underinsured people in Florida as possible. County health care centers provide health care services to the uninsured, making them a logical location for navigators to achieve their goals," according to a statement from nine lawmakers including U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings.
Scott's office deferred comment to the Florida Department of Health.
The agency said in a statement Thursday that their decision is consistent with the policy not to allow outside organizations to access their space or technology systems for outreach. Local health departments can accept brochures and other outreach material about the exchange, but the materials will apparently only be distributed if someone asks for it.
"We are treating the request for navigators' space as any other organization that has sought to establish a physical presence in a county health department," according to the statement.
The agency also echoed past concerns expressed by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi about privacy in the navigator program. Bondi is among attorneys general in 13 states who sent a letter to Sebelius last month questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer data in the program.
Political hype is ramping up on both sides of the aisle as the launch date for the state exchanges, a key component of the controversial health law, draws closer.
One of the law's harshest critics, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, asked Sebelius to visit SeaWorld, where he said employees' hours were capped from 32 to 28 a week.
"Especially for families living paycheck-to-paycheck, cutting their hours and income is exactly how ObamaCare devastates middle class Americans," he said in a statement.
The federal government gave several Florida organizations nearly $8 million in grants to hire navigators to assist with the state exchange. Navigators will be especially important in Florida because the state isn't spending any additional money on outreach efforts to get the message out to roughly 3.5 million uninsured Floridians.
Under the exchange, consumers will be able to choose from bronze, silver, gold, platinum and catastrophic plans that offer a range of premiums, deductibles and co-pays depending on variables such as how many doctors they want included in their network. Insurers are offering 308 plans through the exchange in Florida, according to state insurance officials.
Individuals will have to have health insurance from their employer or purchase it, and will pay a roughly $100 penalty next year if they don't. Anyone making below the poverty line won't be eligible for subsidies through the online marketplace. Federal health officials anticipate roughly 1 million Floridians will fall into a gap where they can't get health insurance because the state rejected Medicaid expansion.