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    Seeking a health insurance option

    Under intense criticism, Rep. Frank Farkas broadens his plan to help uninsured employees.

    By ANITA KUMAR and CURTIS KRUEGER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 19, 2002


    Brian Winstanley can't afford health insurance for himself, let alone his 17 employees at Limey's Pub on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg.

    He estimates it would cost thousands of dollars each year, more than a small business can bear.

    Winstanley is the kind of person state Rep. Frank Farkas had in mind when he proposed a stripped-down health insurance plan.

    Under Farkas' bill (HB 913), insurance companies could offer low-cost plans that would not cover certain procedures now required under state law.

    Something is better than nothing, he reasoned.

    But the proposal set off a firestorm in Tallahassee and back home in Farkas' St. Petersburg district.

    Farkas barrelled ahead undaunted -- until Monday, when he filed an amendment to restore 26 medical procedures, including mammograms, treatments for HIV-related diseases and cleft palate. The last-minute change must be approved by two-thirds of House members.

    The bill would make other aspects of insurance more flexible, including deductibles and co-pays, which Farkas said should lower the cost.

    It's unclear whether the amendment will satisfy opponents, who don't think it's right to let insurance companies off the hook.

    They traveled to the state capital each time the bill was discussed and exploded in anger when Farkas rushed the bill through after they were barred from speaking.

    Opponents showed up again last week in St. Petersburg outside Farkas' legislative office holding signs, including a doctored photo of Farkas with cleft palate, and chanting "Shame on Farkas."

    "It's already hard enough to fight insurance companies," said Brooke Cooley, 9, who says her family constantly battles for coverage for surgeries for her cleft lip and palate. "That guy just doesn't believe it."

    Farkas, who employs a dozen people at his St. Petersburg chiropractic office, is shocked by the hostile response he has received, but says trying to help the 1.3-million Floridians whose employers don't offer insurance remains his top priority. He has spent more time on this subject than any other, he said.

    "They have concerns and I understand that," he said last week. "It's the fear of the unknown ... but the frustrating part is that the naysayers have no solution."

    Employers would have been given choices of what they would cover. A company with no employees in the child-bearing years would not have to cover maternity care.

    That worries Jean Stovall, office manager for Dr. Michael Gallant, chief of plastic surgery at All Children's Hospital, who already has to fight insurance companies to pay for coverage required by law. "If the insurance companies can find a way out of covering something, they'll do it," said Stovall, who joined Gallant outside Farkas' office Friday.

    The plan is supposed to help 1.3-million uninsured Floridians employed at companies with fewer than 50 employees, including lawyers' and doctors' offices, shops and gas stations, Farkas said. But it also could affect 1.9-million people who work at small businesses and already have insurance.

    Opponents, including the Florida Hospital Association, are concerned some employers who already have insurance will dump their more comprehensive, costly coverage for a barebones policy.

    "You can have a policy that doesn't cover you if you get cancer, doesn't cover you if you have a baby, doesn't cover you if you adopt a baby, doesn't cover you if you get diabetes, doesn't cover you if you have a nervous breakdown, ... doesn't cover you if you are in a car accident and you have hospital bills over $10,000," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, during a recent debate.

    Supporters say that won't happen because employers need the most comprehensive insurance to keep and attract workers and because owners must have the same coverage as their employees.

    Opponents don't want the bill in any form. But at a minimum they want annual coverage increased from $10,000 to $50,000 and disclosure of uncovered medical treatments.

    "We're sitting on a crisis," Farkas said. "We've got to find the answer. ... This may not be perfect but I think it's as good as we can get in the marketplace."

    A Florida Chamber of Commerce study of 4,000 businesses statewide showed the number of companies offering health insurance fell from 91 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2000. Forty percent of those offering insurance were considering dropping it.

    Based on those statistics, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, along with business and insurance lobbyists, helped Farkas write the bill.

    Winstanley of Limey's Pub supports the effort.

    "I hope it goes through because right now, there's nothing," he said. "Obviously, there's got to be something not covered for that price."

    The House is expected to consider the bill this week. A Senate bill (SB 1286), sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, which covers more aspects of insurance, also is expected to be debated this week.

    The House passed a bill (HB 111) last week sponsored by Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, that allows limited health insurance under a pilot program in three undetermined areas of the state. The Senate still is considering that proposal.

    "The insurance industry has been trying to do this forever," said Sam Miller, a spokesman with the Florida Insurance Council, an industry lobbying group in Tallahassee. "We're hopeful and we're still working on it -- but we know it's got a lot of baggage."

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