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Health care law challenge goes before Court of Appeals

TALLAHASSEE — Florida already leads a lawsuit challenging the federal health care law, but state officials are going a step further and ignoring the law almost entirely — rejecting millions of federal dollars to provide health care for retirees, seniors, children and people with disabilities.

So far this year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have returned or refused to spend at least $19 million in federal dollars associated with implementing the health care law. Scott has stopped any state planning for the creation of mandated health care exchanges, which will let consumers comparison shop for health care plans. The decisions put Florida at odds with conservative governors in Texas, Indiana and Wisconsin, who are fighting the health law’s constitutionality on one hand and planning for the law on the other.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in the suit pitting 26 states against the federal government.

“Like a lot of other states, Florida is involved in the lawsuit itself, but there’s a big difference,” said Eddie Vale, a spokesperson for the Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit Know Your Care, established to educate people about the federal law. “While other states are suing, they are still going ahead with passing regulations that are necessary, working with Health and Human Services where necessary to bring the benefits of the federal health care law to their residents.”

Take Wisconsin and Indiana, which are parties to Florida’s lawsuit. Governors in both states have signed off on planning for the health care exchanges required by the federal law. In Florida, Scott has not. Pennsylvania, also part of the lawsuit, has 2,684 residents signed up for a program that provides low-cost health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions such as cancer and diabetes who can’t buy coverage anyplace else. Pennsylvania runs its own program with funding from the federal government and has more enrollees than any other state.

In Florida, only 770 people are enrolled in the same plan, and the state has declined to run its own program. And Texas has accepted $276 million for a program that provides health insurance to people over 55 who have retired but aren’t yet eligible for Medicare. Much of that money is going to Texas state employees.

Florida has accepted only $15 million for the early retirement program , with local governments taking the money. Scott plans to accept $37 million for the program — because the payout was agreed to by former Gov. Charlie Crist, officials said.

The issue in Florida isn’t necessarily over the money, it’s over the portion of the federal law that requires people to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty. That requirement is to take effect in January 2014. Florida filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the so-called “individual mandate” provision moments after President Barack Obama signed the act into law in March 2010, arguing that the government can’t force people to buy a product. Twenty-five states joined the suit, along with the National Federation of Independent Business. A federal judge in Pensacola ruled in January in favor of Florida and the other plaintiffs, concluding that because the mandate is unconstitutional, the entire law is unconstitutional.

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