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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

State considers options for Confederate statue

A state panel has scheduled a meeting next week to discuss where to display a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith after the statue is removed from the U.S. Capitol.

The Statue Location Selection Committee will meet June 28 in Tallahassee, according to a notice published Thursday in the Florida Administrative Register.

The issue stems, in part, from a law approved during this year’s Legislative Session to place a likeness of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Bethune’s statue is expected to replace the statue of Smith, who has long been one of two representatives of Florida in the hall. Florida’s other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning. Each state is allowed two representatives.

The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Lawmakers followed up this year with the decision to honor Bethune.

This year’s law, however, also included a requirement that state Division of Cultural Affairs take possession of the returned Smith statue and “make the statue available for public display.”

The law, which takes effect July 1, will serve as a formal request to the federal Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to switch the statues.

Lobbyist registration to start at Citizens Insurance

Lobbyists who represent clients at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will have to register with the insurer beginning Sept. 1 under a policy unanimously approved Wednesday by the Citizens Board of Governors.

Although lobbyists seeking to influence decisions in the executive branch of state government must already register, the state-backed Citizens has not had a similar requirement.

In early May, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asked the insurer to close that disclosure gap and to create a process in which lobbyists must register and disclose their clients.

Under the new policy, lobbyists will have to file a one-year registration form “before communicating or contacting a member of the Citizens Board of Governors or an employee of Citizens, outside of a presentation on the record at a publicly noticed meeting.”

Nancy Staff, Citizens director of ethics and compliance officer, said the registration, which can begin on Aug. 1, will be done online and that registration information will be available to the public on the internet. She said the process is similar to what lobbyists do now when they register to lobby executive agencies, like the governor’s office or the Office of Insurance Regulation.

“It will have the look and feel of the online registration that they are already doing for the executive branch,” Staff told the board.

Lobbyists who “knowingly” violate the registration policy could be barred from the Citizens procurement process and lobbyist registration for up to a year.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Daphne Campbell, Chris Latvala draw new opponents

Two Republicans have opened campaign accounts to try to unseat state Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat, while Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has picked up a second Democratic challenger.

North Bay Village Republican Allen Markelson and Miami Beach Republican Alexia Van Orden opened accounts Wednesday to run in Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 38, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The winner of the Republican primary will square off in November with Campbell or her Democratic primary challenger, Jason Pizzo, who formally qualified for the race Tuesday.

Campbell had raised $92,389 for her re-election bid as of May 31, while Pizzo had raised $93,366 and loaned $100,000 to his campaign, finance reports show.

Meanwhile, Largo Democrat Dawn Douglas opened a campaign account Wednesday to try to unseat Latvala in Pinellas County’s House District 67. Douglas joined Clearwater Democrat Tom Ryan who entered the race this month and formally qualified Wednesday.

Latvala, who qualified Monday, had raised $104,425 for his campaign as of May 31, a finance report shows.

The election qualifying period started Monday and will end at noon Friday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Brad Drake’s opponent shifts to Miami-Dade race

Maybe state Rep. Brad Drake won’t face an opponent in November after all.

A day after Miami-Dade County Democrat Heath Rassner filed paperwork indicating he would run in Drake’s Panhandle district, Rassner switched races Wednesday to run for a seat that is being vacated by term-limited Rep. Jeanette Nunez according to documents posted on the state Division of Elections website.

With election qualifying ending at noon Friday, that left Drake as the only candidate who had submitted paperwork to run in House District 5, which includes Holmes, Jackson, Walton, Washington and part of Bay counties.

In making the switch, Rassner joined a crowded field in Miami-Dade County’s House District 119.

That race also got another new candidate Wednesday, when Democrat Diana Marcel

a Ahmed qualified, according to the Division of Elections website.

Other candidates who have qualified for the race are Republicans Jose Barquin-Fernandez, Enrique Lopez and Annie Martinez and unaffiliated candidate Daniel Sotelo. Republican Bibi Potestad has an open campaign account for the race but had not qualified as of Wednesday evening, according to the Division of Elections website.

UF gets designation for work on mental health

With suicide a growing concern, the University of Florida is touting the designation of its Mood Disorders Program as a center for excellence by the National Network of Depression Centers.

University of Florida Health is the first academic health center in the state to earn the distinction. It joins 21 other centers that work on issues such as educating people, speeding up research and improving treatment options for patients suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders.

Physician Regina Bussing, chair of UF’s department of psychiatry, said the designation will help accelerate efforts to improve and expand care for people with depression and mood disorders.

The nation’s suicide rate went up by nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016, according to a report issued this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Florida’s suicide rate increased by 10.6 percent during the same period, the report said. But the latest state report issued by the Department of Children and Families Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council shows that there were 3,122 suicides in 2016, down from 3,152 suicides in 2015. But both numbers were an increase from the 2,961 suicides reported by the state in 2014.

The University of Florida received the center of excellence designation in April but sent out a release following the high-profile suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

The CDC suicide report is here. The latest Florida report is here.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Critics take aim at Medicaid change

A move by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration to eliminate a long-standing policy that gives poor, disabled and elderly Floridians 90 days to qualify for the Medicaid program isn’t getting support from people who care for patients or from patients’ family members.

More than 100 comments from people such as physicians, nursing-home and hospital executives and family members were sent to the federal government opposing the proposed change, which the Scott administration submitted for approval in April.

If the change is approved by President Donald Trump’s administration, the state would save an estimated $98 million in Medicaid spending this year. The change would eliminate a three-month window where Medicaid pays health care bills while people apply for the program.

Florida isn’t alone in moving ahead with eliminating the policy, but unlike other states that have made similar decisions, Florida has not expanded Medicaid eligibility to include able-bodied working adults.

American Academy of Family Physicians board Chairman John Megis said in his written comments on the proposal that Medicaid reimburses physicians less than Medicare or commercial health insurance plans and that eliminating the 90-day window could be a step too far.

“Should it be eliminated, it would pose more uncertainty to our members, especially those in rural or underserved areas, who are already operating on thin margins,” Megis wrote. “We fear the elimination of retroactive coverage would further dissuade physicians from treating Medicaid populations, further entrenching the health disparities facing the state, and leave others unable to offer services to vulnerable Medicaid populations altogether.”

One caregiver, whose name wasn’t published on the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, shared a story about the caregiver’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in an assisted living facility.

While the family is tapping into savings to pay for the facility, the caregiver worries that the mother may require nursing home care and would then need to enroll in Medicaid. The caregiver said the current policy allows families to focus on choosing the right nursing home instead of worrying about filling out applications.

“I know the state claims their costs will be ‘more predictable’ if this amendment is approved, but medical emergencies are NOT PREDICTABLE. Many ordinary people like myself and my family are dealing with serious illnesses and trying to do the best we can,” the caregiver’s comment said. “If the leaders of our state think saving money is more important than HUMAN LIVES I pray to God for the future of our country.”

If the change is approved by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Florida residents would have to apply for the Medicaid program the same month they get sick. That means, for example, if a patient was admitted to a hospital on April 10, the hospital — working with the patient — would have 20 days to gather information needed to properly fill out the Medicaid application.

However, a patient admitted to the hospital on April 29 would have just one day to gather what is needed to submit the application.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, commonly known as CMS, has given Iowa and Kentucky the go-ahead to eliminate retroactive eligibility, but those states expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to able-bodied adults.

Florida has not. As a result, Medicaid is limited to people such as pregnant women, children, seniors and people with disabilities. Exempting pregnant women and children from the proposal means that the majority of the 39,000 people impacted by the change would be seniors and people with disabilities.

In his comments, Florida Health Care Association Executive Director Emmett Reed said the state should maintain the 90-day window. If the change is approved, though, people should be given 30 days after first being admitted to nursing homes to apply for the program, Reed said. He also predicted in his comments that if the change is approved, there “will be an increase in incomplete Medicaid applications submitted to (the state) and a decrease in the timely processing of Medicaid applications.”

Agency for Health Care Administration spokeswoman Mallory McManus dismissed the criticisms and said the policy change was “about paperwork, not patient care.” She said the proposal focused on quick enrollment into the Medicaid program.

“By enrolling individuals quickly, you ensure better-coordinated fully integrated care, as well as access to preventative services,” McManus said.

But Anne Swerlick, a health care attorney with the Florida Policy Institute, noted that most low-income adults in Florida are prevented from accessing coverage when they are healthy, or even when they suffer from serious chronic conditions, so there isn’t an opportunity to coordinate care and provide preventive services.

“It’s a cruel irony that Florida’s justifications for cutting (retroactive Medicaid eligibility) are the best arguments for why Florida needs to expand its Medicaid program,” Swerlick said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

NRA argues court should take up ‘Jane Doe’ case

A federal appeals court has legal “jurisdiction” to take up a dispute about whether the identity of a 19-year-old Alachua County woman should be kept secret in a challenge to a Florida law that raised the age to purchase rifles and other long guns, the National Rifle Association argued in a document filed Tuesday.

The filing was in response to an order by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for attorneys to submit arguments about whether the court is in a legal posture to consider the matter. The issue stems from a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that the woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” could not remain anonymous as a plaintiff in the challenge to the gun law.

The NRA, which filed the challenge, then went to the appeals court seeking to allow the woman to remain anonymous. The appeals court, however, on June 8 raised the question about whether it should consider the matter and said that if “it is determined that this court is without jurisdiction, this appeal will be dismissed.”

In the filing Tuesday, NRA attorneys wrote that while the appeals court’s jurisdiction involves final orders of district courts, it also can extend to certain “collateral orders.” Quoting an earlier case, it said the appeals court has “squarely held that the type of order on appeal here — ‘an order denying anonymity for a party’ — ‘is a final appealable order under the collateral order doctrine.’ ”

The NRA filed the underlying lawsuit March 9 after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping school-safety measure that included new gun-related restrictions. The legislation was a response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead. In part, the law raised from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase rifles and other long guns.

In late April, the NRA filed a motion to add “Jane Doe” as a plaintiff to the lawsuit and asked Walker to allow the woman to remain anonymous due to fear that public exposure could result in “harassment, intimidation, and potentially even physical violence.”

But Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office argued the request for anonymity “does not provide a sufficient basis for overcoming the strong presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings.” Walker agreed with Bondi’s office, leading the NRA to go to the Atlanta-based appeals court.

Court backs move to shutter nursing home after deaths

A state appeals court Wednesday upheld moves by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration to shut down a Broward County nursing home that drew nationwide attention last year after the deaths of residents following Hurricane Irma.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in a 15-page ruling, rejected challenges to Agency for Health Care Administration orders that suspended The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills’ license to operate; suspended the facility’s participation in the Medicaid program; and placed a moratorium on Medicaid admissions.

The ruling is part of a series of legal battles spawned by the deaths of residents after the Hollywood nursing home’s air-conditioning system was knocked out by Hurricane Irma. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.

Attorneys for the nursing home challenged the agency’s orders on a series of grounds. For example, in the challenge to the suspension from the Medicaid program, they argued the agency failed to detail facts that support “a finding of ‘immediate danger’ to the public health, safety or welfare. The order recites that residents of the nursing home ‘ultimately expired’ but fails to state any specific or particular acts or omissions of the appellant (the nursing home) or its officers, agents, or employees that are alleged to have caused the resident deaths.”

But the appeals court rejected such arguments and alluded to eight deaths that were quickly reported after the nursing home was evacuated Sept. 13 and residents went to a nearby hospital. An investigation later led authorities to attribute other deaths to the conditions.

“The (AHCA) order did not allege an isolated incident or a single mistake in judgment. Instead, it alleged that a total of eight patients died over the course of several hours, three prior to the arrival of first responders, in a facility so hot the first responders evacuated it,” said the ruling, written by appeals court Judge James Wolf and joined by judges Clay Roberts and T. Kent Wetherell. “The facility staff failed to evacuate the patients to the open hospital across the street even after multiple patients suffered medical distress and several died. This order sufficiently alleged an immediate, serious danger to the public health, safety, or welfare. AHCA was statutorily required to suspend the facility’s Medicaid participation upon evidence of patient abuse or neglect. Thus, the order could not have been more narrowly tailored.”

Similarly, the court rejected the nursing home’s arguments that the order suspending the facility’s license to operate was insufficient.

“It included facts alleging a causal connection between the heat and the patients’ deaths,” Wolf wrote. “Four of the residents died soon after being admitted to the hospital with body temperatures between 107 and 109.9 degrees. However, staff members went back and created ‘late entry’ notes reflecting that the patients had relatively normal body temperatures at a time when they were already dead or dying at the hospital.”

The court also ruled that the nursing home’s challenge to the moratorium on Medicaid admissions was moot because of the order suspending the facility’s license to operate.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the nursing home’s air conditioning system on Sept. 10 as the storm caused destruction through much of Florida. The cooling system remained out for three days, creating sweltering conditions, according to authorities.

Scott’s administration issued the moratorium and suspension orders within days of the evacuation. It also later moved to revoke the facility’s license — a decision that is being litigated in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. Meanwhile, another case filed by the nursing home against the Agency for Health Care Administration is pending in Leon County circuit court.

Donald Trump immigration furor underscored in Florida

Amid escalating bipartisan demands for President Donald Trump to stop separating undocumented immigrant children from their families at the southern U.S. border, two high-ranking Florida Democrats were denied access Tuesday to a federal detention facility in Homestead housing an estimated 1,000 minors.

The Trump administration family-separation policy — which has resulted in more than 2,000 children being warehoused throughout the country during a six-week period — has drawn harsh rebukes from Democrats, immigration advocates and a growing chorus of Republicans, including the two men vying to replace Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis have spent months hitching themselves to Trump’s coattails.

But, as Scott did this week, the gubernatorial hopefuls adopted softer stances to the hard line immigration policy, which spawned photos of tearful toddlers and audio recordings of children screaming for their mamas and papis.

“It’s important that we enforce our laws in a humane way and families should be kept together. With secure borders, you would have less of this issue. Washington needs to work with President Trump to find a solution,” Putnam said in a statement issued by his campaign Tuesday.

When asked about the issue Monday during a campaign appearance in Bradenton, DeSantis, who’s carved out a reputation as an immigration hawk and claims to have Trump’s endorsement, said he would “keep the family together and repatriate them back as a family unit.”

Scott, who is trying to oust veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and who is an ally of Trump, also distanced himself from the policy — saying he does “not favor separating families” — while at the same time mirroring the president’s finger-pointing at Congress for the situation.

“What the country is witnessing right now is the byproduct of the many years of bipartisan inaction and failure from our federal government,’’ Scott said in a statement distributed by his Senate campaign. “They have failed to secure our borders, which has resulted in this chaos. Let me be clear — I do not favor separating families. Washington is to blame for this by being all talk and no action, and the solution is to secure the border.”

But while four other governors — including Republicans from Maryland and Massachusetts — are refusing to lend aid to the federal border defense, Scott does not plan to recall three Florida National Guard troops dispatched to support the effort.

Tuesday evening, Scott sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, seeking information about the children reportedly housed at the Homestead facility.

Scott asked Azar to notify federal, state and local authorities immediately about any current or future unaccompanied minors, “or children who were separated from their families under President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy toward illegal entry into the United States” coming to or already in Florida. The governor also sought details about health screenings, education and social services provided to the children.

The opposition from Scott, Putnam and DeSantis to the policy — which Trump administration officials claim is not a policy — comes amid competitive campaigns in a state with a fast-growing number of Hispanics, a voting bloc both Republicans and Democrats consider critical to November victories.

Nelson on Tuesday captured national attention after he and Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz were barred from entering a privately run federal detention facility in Homestead. Nelson said that, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 94 of the approximately 1,000 children housed in the facility were taken from their families at the border.

Nelson and Wasserman Schultz, accompanied by incoming state House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami, told reporters that the contractor running the facility approved their visit.

But Nelson said that, while en route to the detention center Tuesday morning, he was contacted by Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, who told him the facility was off-limits.

“This is not a good day for our country, where a U.S. senator and a U.S. congresswoman have been turned away from a federal facility because the Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and the care of the children inside, children who have been taken from their moms and dads,” an irate Nelson told reporters outside the center.

The three Democrats accused Trump and his administration of a cover-up.

“They are obviously hiding something,” Nelson said. “This is absolutely ridiculous. I am ashamed of this administration, that they are doing this.”

The tension outside the Homestead facility, surrounded by a chain-link fence, reflected the increasingly heated rhetoric in Florida and throughout the nation as Trump and his supporters dig in on the issue while more and more Republicans — especially those who are Hispanic or running in swing districts — criticize the family separation process.

“It depends on how it plays out, but it’s certainly not a great general-election issue, for sure,” Brian Ballard, a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser who has close ties to Trump and Scott, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The situation could provide an opportunity for Republican candidates to define themselves, Ballard said.

“I think it allows folks like Gov. Scott and the gubernatorial candidates to show where they can differ but still be strong Trump supporters. I don’t think people transfer 100 percent of one person to another. Donald Trump’s his own man. There are very few people who agree with Donald Trump on every issue. I think you have to pick your shots,” Ballard said.

But the anger outside the Miami-Dade County facility portrayed a more visceral reaction to the policy state Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, called “unethical and shameful, to say the least.”

Wasserman Schultz, a former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee who has called on U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, said the Democratic lawmakers wanted to ensure that the children were being cared for.

“Are they abusing these kids? Are they sleeping on the floor? Are they in cages? This is an absolute outrage,” she said.

But, as dramatic as the images of sobbing children pleading to be reunited with their parents may be, Ballard believes the Trump administration’s handling of the policy won’t harm the GOP in the fall.

“I don’t think it’s as problematic for Republicans, who can handle issue by issue. You agree with the president on some things, you disagree with him. You don’t have to go over the top. You don’t have to be crazy in how you criticize him. You do it in a respectful way,” he said, adding that Trump is “making a compelling case” for the need to separate undocumented children from the undocumented immigrant adults who are accompanying them at the border.

“I think it will work out. I don’t think it’s a defining issue in the general election,” Ballard said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Fla. Democratic Party’s Terrie Rizzo: ‘We are not taking anything for granted’

Terrie Rizzo was selected in December to lead the Florida Democratic Party after former Chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly quit following accusations by female workers and consultants that he created an uncomfortable work atmosphere.

Rizzo, 70, was elevated to lead the state party after chairing the Palm Beach County Democrats. She spent more than four decades working in health and fitness fields, including managing programs at Stanford University, and has been married to her husband, Mike, for more than 45 years.

The News Service has five questions for Terrie Rizzo:

Q. A few months ago there was talk of a “blue wave” in 2018, but now there are signs that may not happen. Are you concerned that Democrats will once again not turn out in a mid-term election in Florida?

Rizzo: There still is tremendous enthusiasm and excitement that we are seeing around the entire state. Everybody is so energized, but we are not taking anything for granted. So we are working in every county. The Florida Democratic Party has a 67-county strategy, we are working in all the counties. We are working with our county parties, the candidates, with the elected officials to make sure we do get the Democrats out. And people who are concerned about the issues that face Florida. So it’s important that we don’t take it for granted and that we make sure everybody still remains energized. But believe me, there is a tremendous energy and excitement.

Q. Are you worried about the millions of dollars that Gov. Rick Scott is already spending on the U.S. Senate race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson?

Rizzo: We are going to continue our game plan and we are going to continue to put forth our ideas and to make sure the Democratic message gets out. That Sen. Nelson’s message is out, that everyone knows about his positive record, that we carry that message forward, so they know there’s a real choice. What we are focusing on is our side. No one is surprised. The Republicans always outspend the Democrats. Gov. Scott has a record of doing this in the past. This is not a huge surprise at all, and we are just going to continue forward.

Q. Do you think you can win elections this year by focusing on the president and his actions or do you need to come up with your own message?

Rizzo: We have tremendously exciting, excellent candidates across the state who are carrying forth their message and policy. And we are focusing on what Democrats can bring to the table and what Democrats have fought for. It’s important that we focus on our quality candidates. We have tremendous candidates running in races where we haven’t had people before recently. We have loads of qualified candidates running in races from the school board all the way up to the Senate in districts all across the state. They are focusing on exactly what they will bring to their district. They are talking about issues that are important to people in their districts.

Q. Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam was very dismissive of your recently launched rural outreach. How do you turn around areas that have consistently voted Republican for two decades?

Rizzo: It’s important we carry our message everywhere, and that’s exactly why we are doing this. It’s not that we haven’t been there. It’s that we want to make sure that the message gets out in these rural areas as well as the urban areas and the mid-size areas. Every county is important.

By our having this tour and exposing our candidates and emphasizing our candidates are there and what their issues are, we let people in those districts know there are alternatives. And that is really important. And, also, (let them know) that there are other Democrats in the area and that there are people there who want to hear this, independents as well as even Republicans who want to hear some of these messages.

Q. How can Democrats compete in such a large state if they are dramatically outspent?

Rizzo: Because we have the better message. We have the better policies, the better message and the better candidates. And when people hear them, they will know that we are on people’s side and fighting for the kind of issues that are important to people. We need to make sure the message gets out that we have a good ground game — which is what we are doing in terms of our 67-county strategy. That’s how we win.

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