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Guest Author

Louisa McQueeney: We have to protect ACA, pre-existing condition fix

The Trump administration’s refusal to defend the pre-existing condition exclusion and the ACA provision that insurance companies cannot charge more based on a person’s health status, makes you realize once what is at stake.

In February, 20 state attorneys general, including Florida, filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas, claiming that when President Trump signed the “Tax Cuts and Job Act” into law, the individual mandate was repealed, making the entire ACA invalid.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Attorney General Jeff Sessions states that with the repeal of the penalty, the protections of guaranteed issue (pre-existing condition exclusion) and community rating (the sicker you are the more you have to pay) are no longer valid either and the justice department will not defend these important ACA protections in the lawsuit.

GOP efforts to repeal the ACA have failed for a good reason since the public understands the protections the law provides and doesn’t want to go back to a system where an insurance company can deny coverage based on age, health status or put limits on the amount they have to pay out, leaving you to pay the rest.

While both sides of the aisle are talking about various forms of repeal with their own versions of replacement, no Floridian, of any political affiliation, should support the outright repeal of the ACA. It’s just too important to too many people. Instead, we should be using the protections afforded under the ACA as a building block to increase access and coverage for Floridians.

Protections like free annual well-care visits, including screenings like mammograms or flu shots, the ability to keep your child on until the age of 26, tax credits if you make less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, no annual or lifetime limits, and the closing of the doughnut hole for Americans on Medicare.

The piecemeal repeal of the ACA by the Trump administration, and other attempts to repeal the ACA, continue to undermine the protections of the health law and increase the cost of health insurance. This effort will push older, middle-class Floridians, who do not qualify for tax credits under the law, into a more precarious, expensive health care system, where medical bankruptcy is rearing its ugly head again.

Rather than destabilizing the health insurance markets, we should all work together to strengthen and maintain consumer protections and reduce the cost of health care to Floridians.

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Louisa McQueeney is program director for Florida Voices for Health.

Joe Clements: The ‘big picture’ predictions on Election 2018

This cycle, our firm has worked with dozens of Republican campaigns from Cabinet positions to Congress. One advantage of our workload has been an opportunity to see the results of dozens of polls and focus groups conducted by several national and Florida-based research firms.

Without sharing specifics on data, campaigns or researchers, I want to give a few of my big picture ideas and predictions about what is happening this cycle in Florida.

After I analyze an article of research, I keep notes in a document, which eventually provides an outline for the macro trends I notice across research products. The items below are extracted almost verbatim from my notes and I hope they help provide some context for the current cycle.

Andrew Gillum is underestimated by establishment Republicans and Democrats. Democratic activists are angry about Donald Trump and want someone who shares their anger. In a crowded primary, Gillum has a built-in advantage with African-American voters and has a clear play to voters under 35 years old. He is also hurting Philip Levine and Gwen Graham by pushing them further left.

– The Democratic left flank is the single most underestimated factor of this election. Bernie Sanders was not a fluke. For the first time in a century, there is a true socialist/social justice/leftists voter group on the left with a clear guiding philosophy that pulls and energizes the rest of the party. The problem for Democrats is that their left wing is as far, if not further from center, then the Republican right.

– The Republican conservative right has replaced the role of philosophy (conservatism) with personality (Trump). There is no longer a uniting philosophy on the right outside of populist nationalism. Republican voters appear to differentiate between Trump and other Republican candidates but do want to see reflections of Trump in their candidates.

– Trump is equal parts headwind and tailwind for Republicans. Lower propensity Republican-leaning voters do appear eager to cast a proxy vote in support of him. It’s not clear the same energy exists to cast protests votes against Trump among lower propensity Democratic voters.

– College educated suburban and urban women are going to be the Achilles’ heel for Republicans. These women previously leaned Republican but dislike Trump and will vote Democrat if a good option is available. These “Whole Foods Moms” are the 2018 manifestation of the 2004 “Soccer Moms.” They still vote for security and safety, but Parkland, not 9/11, is now their marquee fear.

– Republicans have work to do on immigration. The issue is considered vital among the Republican base but general election voters think Democrats would do a better job handling the issue.

– Democrats have a real shot at Attorney General. They have decent candidates and room to use populist messaging that appeals to Republican segments on “Big Pharma,” “Big Sugar,” and “Big Insurers.” This race will be the clearest square off between an economic growth message and a populist message.

– Millennials are likely to comprise a significant portion of the electorate for the first time this year as they’ve aged into their thirties. My prediction is that men will break slight Republican and women will break hard Democratic.

– Guns won’t be the watershed issue in the general. Both sides will use the issue to drive turnout but it does not appear to be the strongest issue with moderate voters. We are likely to hear a lot about jobs and the economy come October.

– Floridians are generally optimistic about Florida’s path, which is favorable for incumbent candidates and parties, but Democrats and Republicans live in different worlds on the issue. Republicans are happy, Democrats are not happy, and NPA voters lean happy. Democrats really need the economy to slump and Republicans need it to keep growing.

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Joe Clements is co-founder and CEO of Strategic Digital Services, a Tallahassee-based tech company. He is also co-founder of Bundl, a campaign contribution management app.

Hold my beer and watch this! July 4th fireworks light up ER

As the July 4 midweek holiday arrives, Sachs Media Group’s Breakthrough Research Division wanted to look on the brighter side of our independence-declaring holiday — and by that, we mean fireworks, of course!

Specifically, we consulted the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) to look at the volume of recorded injuries involving fireworks in the past decade.

We were illuminated to learn from Jim Rosica of Florida Politics that Floridians purchasing fireworks continue to promise to use them “solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries” with few exceptions.

According to injury data, however, birds shouldn’t be the only ones frightened.

The NEISS uses a sample of hospitals across the US to estimate nationwide totals for ER visits involving an injury associated with consumer products.

Based on these data, a whopping 100,646 Americans have visited the ER for fireworks-related injuries since 2008.

And get this: a shocking two-thirds of these visits occur on or just after one day of the year: July Fourth. Comparatively, Independence Day sees nearly seven times as many fireworks-related injuries as New Year’s Eve each year.

So what happens to cause these injuries? Well, based on the data, we can infer that most injuries involve lighting mistakes. Over 20 percent of all hospital visits due to fireworks include an injury to the hand, and another 12 percent involve an injury of the fingers.

The head also sees as a fair amount of action with 20 percent of all fireworks-related ER visits relating to the eyes, 12 percent to the face area, 3 percent to the ear, and 2 percent to the head.

Less than 1 percent of reported injuries involve the “pubic region,” though this stat may not be of much comfort to the estimated 319 men who experience such an injury each year.

Take these data as a precautionary tale for your July Fourth weekend festivities: don’t pick up a lit firework, stay away from Roman candles, and please, if you find yourself saying to your friend “hold my beer,” you shouldn’t start the fire.

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Andrew Bryant is a master’s student at Florida State University majoring in economics and statistics, and a former research intern with Sachs Media Group.

Bob Holladay: The Department of Education is flaunting the law

There is a term in the Florida Administrative Procedure Act for when a state agency goes rogue and refuses to follow a legislative statute: “an invalid exercise of delegated legislative authority.”

There are other terms for it, but I prefer the plainest: flaunting the law.

If it’s a high-profile agency (no names, please), the legislature might respond by threatening to cut salaries. The question is: What is it going to do about the Department of Education?

Since the beginning of the summer, DOE has been violating Florida Statute 1007.25(4), the legislative language setting up a postsecondary “civic literacy” requirement that passed as part of HB 7069 in 2017.

DOE has been violating the statute by contracting with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to create a new “bypass” examination for students who don’t want to take either the history or government coursework necessary to meet the new requirement.

They can’t do that.

Florida Statute 1007.25(4) very plainly says that DOE must adopt in rule and the Board of Governors in regulation “at least one existing assessment that measures … the required course competencies …”

The key word is “existing.” Existing when? How about when 7069 became law July 1, 2017?

How do we know that’s what the legislature meant? Because of the other language in Florida Statute 1007.25(4) mandating the creation of a statewide faculty committee to “develop a new course in civic literacy or revise an existing general education core course in American History or American Government to include civic literacy.”

Get it?

Students can only meet the requirement by passing an “existing” assessment, but the statewide faculty committee could have created a “new” course if it wanted to (it hasn’t so far).

The language is very specific: new or existing coursework, an “existing” test.

Eight months passed between the time HB 7069 became law and when the DOE first offered Rule 6A-10.02413 implementing it for colleges, and the Board of Governors offered Regulation 8.006, implementing it for universities.

Why, during those months, didn’t the “statewide faculty committee” create a new test to go along with the new course they were specifically authorized to create?

Because they knew they couldn’t.

Don’t take my word for it; read the staff analysis by the Florida House or the one from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) from the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Both make it abundantly clear what “existing” means.

There are some who are choosing to read “existing” as meaning the statute requires only one existing assessment and that DOE can create as many new tests as it wants as long as one of them existed before HB 7069. That doesn’t hold water either; the Florida legislature knows how to craft statutory language.

Why would DOE flaunt the law?

How about the fact that they got caught back in March trying to make one of four “existing” assessments to meet the civic literacy requirement the U.S. Immigration Services Naturalization Test? You know, the one I wrote about in March, with such college-level questions as “Name a state that borders Canada.”

When they were called on it, they withdrew the rule, only to announce that they were going to use the Naturalization Test “with supplementary questions.” Which is where the Frey Institute comes in. At their May meeting, the State Board of Education adopted Rule 6A-10.02413 without the Naturalization test in any iteration but were remarkably public that, sometime this summer, they were going to reopen the rule and insert the Frey Institute’s handiwork.

Why? After all, the three remaining bypass exams (the AP History and Government, and the CLEP Exam) are all genuine college level. I just graded the AP History Exam, and I know.

DOE was public about that, too.

They want something that is free, easy and online.

I’ve seen the work-in-progress of the Frey Institute; it replaces 58 out of the 100 questions on the Naturalization Test and makes them multiple choice. Would anyone dispute that that doesn’t make it a new test? Why does DOE think it can create a new test and claim that it’s an “existing” test?

Here’s the lowdown: the original Naturalization Test was abandoned because it did not meet the competencies spelled out in Florida Statute 1007.25(4), because the answers are available online, and because it is fifth-grade level.

At a March 30 rule development workshop, DOE tried to claim that 14 states already use the Naturalization Test for Civic Literacy, but then was also forced to admit that none of them use it for a college level requirement. Florida would be the first. The new test will also be online. How many times can you take it? Are the questions the same, no matter how many times?

The new test retains more than 40 of the original questions whose answers are online now (how about that for a boost?) and still does not meet all the competencies listed in both the statute and rule itself. And it’s a NEW test.

DOE has had over a year to work on this, and they still can’t read a simple statute.

Why go to all this trouble? The answer is pretty clear to me: DOE is not interested in your college student actually learning the history and government necessary to be civically literate.

Under pressure from universities who don’t want to spend the money to teach the extra courses (despite the fact that they would clearly make money from them), they are interested in being able to report that 50 percent, 75 percent, 95 percent of college students were able to meet the new requirement.

Even if it means “flaunting” the law to do it.

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Bob Holladay writes the Florida Bookman column for the Tallahassee Democrat and teaches history at Tallahassee Community College.

Jackie Toledo: Enough is enough — put down the phone

It’s another hot Florida summer and as a mother of five children, that means spending time running them from one summer camp to the next, and spending lots of time in the car. As I drive around, the one thing that stands out is the number of people who are texting or paying more attention to their cellphones than the road in front of them.

I vow, as your representative, to once again make the case that Florida needs to address the epidemic of distracted driving with a hands-free bill to save lives and protect the ones we love.

Last year, we introduced legislation and it had great momentum, educating both fellow legislators and the public about the deadly consequences of this terrible habit. But we need to go farther.

Even though advanced technologies have made cars safer, roadway crashes and deaths are rising sharply across the country. And Florida’s trends are particularly alarming. The National Safety Council estimates that as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes across the country in 2016. In Florida, motor vehicle fatalities have increased an alarming 43 percent since 2014, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Distracted driving and the ubiquitous use of smartphones behind the wheel are leading causes for the rise in vehicle crashes in Florida and nationwide. Distracted driving-related crashes have also experienced a double-digit spike. In 2015, there were more than 45,000 distracted driving crashes in Florida, resulting in more than 39,000 injuries and more than 200 fatalities.

As lawmakers, we have the ability to strengthen our laws and hopefully save lives.

I hear harrowing stories every day from Floridians whose lives have been devastated by distracted driving and how they do not want others to feel the same pain they are enduring. I stand with them and want to make a life-changing difference today and for our future generations.

When you’re behind the wheel, driving must be taken seriously, otherwise, the consequence may be deadly.

So, as we’re hustling here and there this summer, let’s make an extra effort to drive responsibly.

Please think twice, and put the phone down.

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Tampa state Rep. Jackie Toledo represents House District 60.

Christian Cámara: Complete exoneration is why Russia probe must proceed

President Donald Trump was right when he called the Russia investigation a “cloud” over his administration. It has shadowed his every action since soon after the Inauguration.

The question is how to safely dispel it.

Here’s what we now know: Fighting back only adds energy to the storm. Firing James Comey led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Removing Mueller, or sacking his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, would produce both a political and constitutional crisis.

To what end? The Federal Bureau of Investigation would keep investigating. It’s what they do. If that institution were diverted, the New York Attorney General’s office, out of Trump’s reach, would double down on its many ongoing probes. Moreover, the fallout from such a firing could lead both houses of Congress to turn blue. That would mean at least two years of incessant new congressional investigations, hearings and subpoenas — and a complete halt to any progress on issues that actually affect Americans.

It’s the myth of the Hydra. For every head that rolls at the Justice Department, two more inquiries will spring up.

Fortunately, there is a sensible alternative: Allow the judicial process to unfold without interference. All indications are that Trump will be fully and publicly cleared by the special counsel, if he is given time to conclude his work. This is the best possible outcome — for everyone.

For the president, complete exoneration by the Mueller investigation will be well-deserved vindication, which will enable him to determine his own place in history through his own accomplishments with no asterisk of illegitimacy next to his name. Republicans will be rewarded for their patience with their best shot at widespread victory this year and in 2020. Most importantly, the country will gain stability, with our precious rule of law intact.

Perhaps the only people who will not benefit from the Mueller investigation are those who screamed loudest for it, and of course, those actually guilty of potential wrongdoing such as former top FBI official Peter Strzok whose own personal bias against the president indicated “a willingness to take official action to impact [Donald Trump’s] electoral prospects,” per a recent bombshell inspector general report. Attempting a coup — even in such a bloodless way as this to undermine a valid election — is a dangerous gambit.

Failure rarely turns out well for the conspirators, but let them reap their just deserts.

We can trust the constitutional system that has protected our freedoms for over 200 years, or we can wander off into uncharted territory of limitless executive power. We conservatives have always put our faith in time-tested institutions and the rule of law.

We’d do well to maintain that.

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Christian Cámara (@ChristianCamara) is a conservative activist and self-described “Reaganista.”

Michael Patterson: Build on the Affordable Care Act

As a small-business owner, I have a front-row seat to the successes and failures of the Affordable Care Act. I have personally witnessed the increased access to health care that my employees now enjoy.

Prior to the Affordable Care Act, employees with pre-existing conditions were either extremely expensive to cover or completely uncoverable altogether. As someone who values and cares about their employees, that was unacceptable.

Now, most Americans have health insurance through their employer, and the majority are happy with their plans. Our health care system may not be perfect, but Congress has the ability to make great strides in improving it – not replace it with ideas like a single-payer system.

We need to build on existing legislation and continue to make sure everyone in our country can have care and coverage because upending our entire health care system doesn’t make sense.

Let’s fix what isn’t working and build on what is already in place. A single-payer system sounds nice in theory, but a one-size-fits-all, government-controlled health care system from D.C. is not the answer. The same is true for any plan to undercut the ACA. We’ve made important progress in expanding access to health care in recent years, we can’t go backward.

My employees want a health care system that is affordable, has more options and is accessible to all. As an employer, that’s what I want for them too. It’s time for Congress to make common-sense improvements to the Affordable Care Act and ensure employees across Florida have the health security they deserve.

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Michael Patterson is the chief executive officer for Interactive Outdoor Media Solutions LLC.

Johnny Boykins: Why would we start over with health care?

I knew we’d have a fight on our hands to defend the progress made by the Obama administration in reforming our health care system. I wake up every day recognizing that millions of my fellow Floridians could lose coverage and access if the current Administration’s efforts to undermine the health care law are successful.

I admit there are problems with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But we can’t afford to start over, as some are suggesting with their health care proposals. Why would people support that and lose the health care they enjoy?

With the passage of the ACA, millions of Americans could obtain coverage they never had before: 91 percent of Americans have insurance for the first time in American history. As President of the Pinellas County Young Democrats, I’ve seen the importance of young people staying on their parents’ insurance until age twenty-six, and the impact of the new protections for people with pre-existing conditions. We need to build on the advances we’ve made so far on health coverage that more than 180 million Americans rely on.

Congress should be focusing on common-sense policies to cover the remaining 9 percent of Americans still worried about what will happen if they or their family member gets sick or goes to the hospital — not upending our health care system through sweeping, unrealistic and unattainable legislation.

With the 2018 elections approaching, we must support candidates who prioritize pragmatic, patient-centered health care policies. We need leadership in Washington willing to work hard to preserve the current health coverage that millions enjoy and fix what isn’t working to make health care accessible for all Americans.

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Johnny Boykins is president of the Pinellas County Young Democrats.

Marsha Edwards: District, charter teachers all in this together

As an educator who has taught in both district-run and charter public schools, I am astounded when I read articles or hear claims from school board members around the state charter schools take away funding from the local public-school system.

That is not the case.

Charter schools provide options for families who can’t afford to live in communities with A-rated neighborhood schools. Every student deserves the same opportunity to be educated, and charters just open another door for them to receive what they rightfully deserve.

These parents should not be shamed for their choices.

What’s more, my own experience in Hillsborough County shows charter schools are partners in our local public-school system.

I have lived in the Riverview area for five years and I have seen tremendous growth in the area. With many homes being built, new families with children have moved to this part of the county. Now nearby schools, especially high-performing ones, have become overcrowded. Charter schools like BridgePrep Academy, where I teach kindergarten, help relieve the strain on the school district.

Our school helps students reach the same standards as other public schools, and offers an environment where instruction is more individualized and tailored to each student’s needs.

I can personally attest, as both a teacher and a parent. I have experienced hardship securing a quality education for my own children. When I relocated to Hillsborough County from Miami-Dade in 2012, I was faced with minimal educational choices. My children were zoned to a school that had received consecutive D’s. For me, it was not a suitable option.

As a single mother, homeschooling was not an option, either. I had heard many negative stories about charter schools. But I was blessed with the opportunity to send my children to Winthrop Charter. It was a great fit for my kids, and one of the best decisions I have made.

Fast-forward a few years later, they now attend the school where I teach. I have watched their love for learning flourish. They are in an environment where they are more comfortable expressing themselves, while also being challenged academically.

Thousands of families all over this state are in similar positions. We do not all have the opportunity to buy our way into high-class neighborhoods with high-performing neighborhood schools. But we still believe our children deserve a high-class education. Many people see the brand-new charter schools opening and assume we labor in luxury. But charter schools actually operate at a disadvantage.

Many district-run public schools have been in operation for years and have accrued many curricular essentials over time. We are not allotted the same essential resources. Nor are funds readily available to purchase them.

It is a fact that charter schools have historically received less funding per student than district schools. Although recent legislation has helped make funding more equal, charter schools like my current school still must hold fundraisers to provide vital student services like developmental reading assessment kits, accommodation testing materials and math manipulatives.

While the Hillsborough County school district has one of Florida’s most responsive charter school support teams, we still do not receive the same support from the central office as our counterparts in the district.

I have educated young minds for 12 years. Most of my career has been in district-run schools: Six years in Miami-Dade County and two years with the Hillsborough County district before I began teaching in charters, first with Charter Schools USA and now BridgePrep.

Every year, my goal has been to give my students the best I can to prepare them for their future. I believe that is what every educator wants for their students. We are all in this together. We all want our students of varying needs and abilities to receive necessary support services. We all rely on support and appreciation from parents, the community, administrators and our professional counterparts. We all desire salaries that allow us to support our families and still allow us to make purchases to benefit our classroom. We all desire to feel safe at our school sites. Why is there disagreement when we all want the same things?

I believe district and charter school educators should join forces to raise a stronger voice for quality public education. The students we all educate will become our doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

We educate the world. Let’s work together to change it.

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 Marsha Edwards is an educator who lives in the Tampa Bay-area.

John Thomas: Duke Energy should keep its promise to Polk County

It’s good when a Florida business can partner with a huge corporation on a project that will revive a struggling community. So, it’s particularly distressing when the corporation acts like a bully, pushing aside the interests of its smaller partner — and the entire community — so it can grab a bigger profit for itself.

Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening right now in the small Central Florida town of Fort Meade, which has been struggling to recover from the closure of phosphate mines that once drove the economy of Polk County. The decision by Duke Energy to abandon its partner, U.S. EcoGen, could cost the local community hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars.

As a director of the Florida Alliance for Consumers and Taxpayers (FACT), an organization that weighs in on consumer issues, and a longtime advocate for local communities, I have seen far too many instances where big corporations run over those who place their trust in them. In this case, Duke Energy’s cash grab has caught the attention of some important state legislators.

A little background: Duke Energy partnered with U.S. EcoGen in 2011 to build a $400 million plant to produce biomass renewable energy, which would provide Duke with enough electricity to power approximately 10,000 homes. Relying on this agreement, U.S. EcoGen has already spent more than $40 million developing the project and bought more than 1,300 acres in Polk County for the new facility. The project was delayed by everything from the discovery of gopher tortoises to the new federal tax reform law — things beyond the control of the smaller company. U.S. EcoGen asked Duke Energy for a one-year extension, meaning it would start delivering power in 2020, but the mega-corporation said no.

This refusal is both baffling and harmful to consumers, since the state Public Service Commission has said the project would save ratepayers almost $60 million. Baffling, that is, unless you consider that it looks like Duke Energy has taken an interest in operating its own renewable energy business. In a PSC document from last year, Duke Energy asked permission to enter the renewable energy field, which would make it a direct competitor with U.S. EcoGen — not a partner. Unless, of course, it found a way to stop U.S. EcoGen’s plant from ever opening.

Unsurprisingly, the project has wide support from the local community who sees this as a unique opportunity to diversify their economic future. Additionally, State Sen. Aaron Bean and Rep. Jay Trumbull, who chair legislative panels that oversee energy and utilities’ issues, have written letters encouraging Duke Energy to move forward with this project. They cite the financial implications for the community, the potential loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs, and the impact on consumers.

Duke Energy has a real chance to do something good for its ratepayers, good for this community, and good for the public. It’s not too late for the corporation to change its mind, so for the sake of this community and Florida, let’s hope that Duke does the right thing.

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John Thomas is a director with the Florida Alliance for Consumers and Taxpayers. He has decades of experience working with local governments and elected officials.

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