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Darren Soto under fire for having urged Puerto Ricans to declare they intend to stay

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando has come under fire for statements he made last Friday at a Puerto Rico town hall meeting in Kissimmee, when he urged evacuees to declare they intend to stay in Florida.

Soto’s comments had come during a question-and-answer period after he, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and others including Florida Gov. Rick Scott had addressed more than 500 people gathered at the Kissimmee Civic Center about issues surrounding Puerto Rico, evacuees who have fled to Florida following Hurricane Maria, and federal, state, and local assistance and recovery efforts.

Responding to a question about federal assistance, Soto noted inequities and legal quirks in the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs. He noted that when evacuees go home to the island they lose coverage, and that he and others are working on legislation to try to make benefits more seamless as people move back and forth. But that’s not the case yet, he said.

“One thing for those who recently arrived need to know is, you’re going to be asked the question, ‘Do you intend to stay?’ I urge you to say ‘yes, for now,'” Soto told the town hall. “Because otherwise you’re going to get rejected, and then you’re going to find yourself without health care. So I urge you to watch for that pitch-fall question.”

A report on WFTV-News in Orlando and posts on Facebook other social media, raised the question of whether Soto was encouraging people to make false claims about their intentions to stay in Florida or not.

In a written statement provided by his office Wednesday morning, Soto denied he made any such overture.

“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise. Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida. The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans,” Soto said. “If they eventually leave, their Medicaid or Medicare will automatically be terminated and they will have to reapply back in Puerto Rico. Healthcare could mean the difference between life and death for eligible seniors, disabled and children evacuees, many of whom have been without healthcare for months.”

One of Soto’s Republican opponents seeking to take him on in the 2018 election, Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud, said he did not think Soto said anything that would raise legal problems, but he questioned the ethics of the statement.

“There is an ethics problem here,” Liebnitzky said. “Is it a big problem? Probably not. It is an ethical problem. He shouldn’t have done it.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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