By GARY FINEOUT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) â¿¿ 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.