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    Health bill fosters ill will in House

    The Senate president's wife lobbies for a portion of the measure that breezes through the Senate and is up for a House vote today.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET and LUCY MORGAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 3, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- A health care bill written in secret and stocked with provisions sought by powerful lobbyists, including the wife of Senate President John McKay, emerged Thursday as a key component of a deal to bring a special session to a trouble-free conclusion.

    But all didn't go smoothly. Eight House Republicans unhappy with the health care bill demanded a private meeting Thursday night with Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, where the House's second most powerful member laid it on the line.

    "The Senate president has said that in order to do the governor's tax cut bill we've got to do the Senate's health care bill clean, and pass the CFO (chief financial officer) bill," Byrd told them. "That's pretty much the deal . . . it's the cards you've been dealt."

    Gov. Jeb Bush wants lawmakers to pass a $262-million tax break for corporations, and all sides need to agree on the makeup of the new chief financial officer. Earlier sessions have collapsed in a meltdown of harsh words and unfinished business, and Bush didn't want to see that happen again.

    Byrd's account is at odds with McKay's public stance, in which he has claimed to be indifferent to the health care bill because his wife Michelle is lobbying for parts of it.

    "I've not been involved in that bill in the slightest," McKay said Thursday night. He said others, notably Senate Rules Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, were negotiating with the House.

    Publicly, McKay has kept his distance. He left the rostrum when the bill came up in the Senate on Thursday and was the only senator who didn't vote on the bill, which passed 39-0. But Michelle McKay's lobbying for ophthalmologists was the talk of the Capitol.

    Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Bartow, asked to explain the bill's momentum, said: "It could be this blond-headed gal running around," referring to Mrs. McKay.

    "That's so immature," John McKay said.

    To secure the bill's passage, House leaders used a rare maneuver known as a closed rule to prevent the bill from being amended. That virtually assured its passage, but it brought sharp criticism, even from some Republicans who said it was wrong to ramrod through such a major issue.

    "It was one of those things where they put down the gauntlet," said House Majority Leader Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola.

    A House vote is scheduled for today.

    The bill (SB 46-E) began life as an effort to control rising health care premiums for small businesses while creating experimental programs in Miami-Dade, Broward, the western Panhandle and Indian River County to help more low-income people acquire coverage. It adds an Alzheimer's research center at the University of South Florida and seeks to speed payments of medical claims by insurers to doctors.

    It also raises insurance costs by as much as 50 percent for nearly 100,000 self-employed Floridians, many with serious medical problems, to obtain insurance for themselves. Those people currently can get insurance from the same category as companies that have up to 50 employees.

    The bill also allows doctors to refer eye patients to an ophthalmologist without seeing an optometrist first, as some health care plans require.

    Mrs. McKay promoted that provision for the Florida Society of Ophthalmologists. The head of the group's political action committee, Dr. Alan Mendelsohn of Hollywood, is an aggressive fundraiser for legislators' campaigns who also favors other parts of the bill, such as a "prompt pay" provision.

    "I understand there is an ophthalmologist in Fort Lauderdale who has become very politically active and that's why this bill is moving," said Ken Plante, a former Republican legislator who lobbies for the Florida Optometric Association, which opposes the bill.

    "I'm very embarrassed that a majority party wouldn't allow members on the floor to offer amendments," Plante added. "I can't remember this happening since 1967 and especially with a bill that has never been heard in committee."

    Another controversial, heavily lobbied section of the bill prevents doctors from sending dialysis patients to labs in which they have an ownership interest. That has been pushed for four years by Mark Ginsburg of Boca Raton, who owns dialysis labs in Broward.

    Ginsburg hired 17 lobbyists. His business competitors, including three large firms that have long dominated the Florida dialysis market, hired a flock of their own.

    In the caucus with his House colleagues, Byrd warned that House resistance could send the session into a tailspin. "We're dealing with a huge unknown down at the other end," Byrd said of the Senate.

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