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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.

Florida uninsured rate increases, tops national average

More than 2.6 million people in Florida lacked health insurance at some point in 2017, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means about 12.9 percent of the state’s population last year was uninsured — up from 12.5 percent in 2016 — as Florida continued to be higher than the national average of 8.8 percent.

“Florida is going in the wrong direction, and Florida already had a high uninsured rate to begin with,” said Joan Alker, executive director and research professor at the Center for Children and Families at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy.

Nationally, the data showed that about 1 in 4 uninsured people were 26 to 34 years old, and about 1 in 5 uninsured people were ages 34 to 44. Data also indicated that the uninsured tended to have lower incomes and were more likely to have high-school educations or less.

Florida had the fifth-highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation, with the higher states Texas (17.3 percent), Oklahoma (14.2 percent), Alaska (13.7 percent) and Georgia (13.4 percent).

The release of the new numbers comes at a time when health care remains one of the top issues dividing Florida political leaders and as it has become a key issue during this year’s elections.

Democrats have long called for expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act to include uninsured childless adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. But the Republican-controlled Legislature has rejected the idea.

Before his 2014 re-election campaign, Republican Gov. Rick Scott came out in favor of Medicaid expansion but later resumed his opposition to the idea. Scott is running for the U.S. Senate this year, trying to unseat longtime Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said the narrative that Medicaid expansion is a cure-all “just isn’t’ true” and that “19 states that expanded Medicaid have seen an increase in the number of uninsured.”

“Florida’s Medicaid program is operating at an all-time high in efficiency and service to Florida families,” Lewis said. “The fact is, Gov. Scott has offered significant proposals on how Washington can increase quality and access to health care.”

After President Donald Trump was elected, Scott called for Congress to repeal the federal health-care overhaul, which was pushed into law by former President Barack Obama and is commonly known as Obamacare. The effort ultimately failed, although Florida is now part of an ongoing lawsuit that could dismantle key portions of the law.

A closer look of the new data shows that in Florida, about 45 percent of people with insurance in 2017 obtained it through their employers. Medicare, the government-run program for people 65 and older, and Medicaid, which covers the poor, elderly and disabled, account for 21.7 percent and 18.6 percent of the insured population respectively. Another 3 percent of Floridians with health insurance obtained it through the Veterans Administration, according to the data.

The remaining people obtained their insurance, according to the Census data, by directly purchasing policies. For many people, that meant buying policies on the federal health-care exchange, which was created through the Affordable Care Act.

Jodi Ray, director of the organization Florida Covering Kids & Families, said she wasn’t surprised by the Census data.

Florida Covering Kids & Families works to provide education, training and enrollment assistance to help people obtain health coverage. As she travels the state, it’s not unusual for her, she said, to speak with residents who aren’t aware that they can enroll in the federal health insurance exchange.

“It never fails to shock me when I hear them say, ‘I thought that went away,’ “she said.

Florida agencies, utilities poised to provide Hurricane Florence aid

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that Florida state agencies and electric utilities are taking steps to provide help after Hurricane Florence hits land later this week.

Scott’s office said Florida has sent two urban search-and-rescue teams to North Carolina and South Carolina; a nursing team of 29 people to North Carolina to help with special-needs shelters; and five ambulance teams to North Carolina to help with medical evacuations.

The assistance also includes Florida utilities sending crews to help restore power after the hurricane and the state suspending requirements for transportation of animals to help in the movement of livestock from areas affected by the hurricane. Florence is expected to approach the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina late Thursday and Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“We will continue to do all we can to support our neighbors in the Southeast as we prepare for Hurricane Florence,” Scott said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “In Florida, we are fortunate to have the best emergency management professionals in the world to respond to disasters in our state and to help other states during times of emergency.”

State Farm drops lawsuit over ‘AOB’ information

State Farm Florida this week dismissed a lawsuit that stemmed from a woman filing a public-records request for information that the company submitted to regulators about the controversial insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits.”

State Farm filed the lawsuit in July against the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, arguing that the information should be shielded from disclosure because it is a trade secret and exempt from the state’s public-records laws.

But in a one-page document filed Monday, State Farm said it was dismissing the case because the public-records request had been withdrawn.

The Office of Insurance Regulation received the records request in June from Elizabeth Tuxbury, a graduate student at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University who sought information submitted to the state after a “data call” of insurers.

The document filed Monday does not explain why the records request was withdrawn. Assignment of benefits has been a highly controversial issues in recent years, with insurers arguing that litigation and fraud involving the practice are driving up property-insurance premiums.

The issue has primarily focused on residential water-damage claims, though it also has extended to such issues as claims for vehicle windshield damage.

The practice, widely known as AOB, involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers — often leading to disputes and lawsuits. Contractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys argue it helps ensure that damage claims are paid properly.

The Office of Insurance Regulation requested years’ worth of data from insurers about the handling of property-insurance claims and assignment of benefits.

Backers of Amendment 2, which would limit property taxes, make big ad buy

A political committee backing a proposed ballot measure about limiting property taxes spent $4 million last week on advertising, a new finance report shows.

The committee known as Amendment 2 is for Everybody paid the money Sept. 4 to the New York-based firm McLaughlin & Associates. The committee, which has been heavily funded by the industry group Florida Realtors, had nearly $400,000 in remaining cash on hand as of Friday, according to the report.

The proposed constitutional amendment, placed on the November ballot by the Legislature, would extend a property-tax cap for commercial and other non-homestead properties.

Voters in 2008 approved a constitutional change that placed a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed values of non-homestead properties.

The limit will expire Jan. 1 unless it is extended by voters through this year’s proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear on the ballot as Amendment 2.

‘Marsy’s Law’ campaign tops $30M

Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to expand crime victims’ rights have poured more than $30 million into the campaign, with nearly $5.7 million coming at the end of August, according to a newly filed finance report.

The California-based Marsy’s Law for All Foundation contributed $5.695 million on Aug. 28 to the Marsy’s Law for Florida political committee.

As of Aug. 31, the Florida committee had raised $30.37 million, with almost all of the money coming from the California foundation. The Florida committee had spent about $28.2 million as of Aug. 31, with much of the money going to advertising expenses, the report shows.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission this year approved putting the proposal, designated as Amendment 6, on the November ballot.

Supporters of the proposal, which has become commonly known as “Marsy’s Law,” argue it would establish a series of rights for crime victims, including the right to be notified of major developments in criminal cases and the right to be heard in the legal proceedings.

The proposed constitutional amendment faced a legal challenge from critics who argued that its wording would be misleading to voters. But the Florida Supreme Court last week rejected the challenge.

The proposal is part of a broader national movement that stems from the 1983 death of a California woman, Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Marsy Nicholas’ brother, Henry, is the co-founder of Broadcom Corp. and has spearheaded the Marsy’s Law movement.

Money pumped into ads for felons’ rights initiative

A political committee backing a proposed constitutional amendment on felons’ rights spent nearly $3.6 million in late August, with almost all of the money going to advertising-related expenses, according to a newly filed finance report.

The committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy spent $3.579 million from Aug. 25 to Aug. 31, with $3.557 million of that amount listed as going to a “media buy” and digital advertising. The report also showed that the committee had about $4.88 million in remaining cash on hand as of Aug. 31.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 4, would automatically restore voting rights for all nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Felons convicted of murder and sexual offenses would not be eligible.

The proposal, which would require approval from 60 percent of voters to pass, comes after years of political and legal fights about restoring the rights of felons who have served their sentences.

Judge refuses to scuttle NRA lobbyist case

A federal judge has refused a request by a California man to dismiss part of a lawsuit in which the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist alleges she received harassing and threatening emails in the aftermath of the February mass shooting at a Broward County high school.

Lobbyist Marion Hammer filed the lawsuit in July against California attorney Lawrence Sorensen and three other men because of emails they sent to her after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and amid the subsequent debate on gun-control issues. The lawsuit sought damages and an injunction against further emails.

Sorensen, who works as an arbitrator and mediator, argued in seeking dismissal that a federal court in Florida does not have “personal jurisdiction” over him. The argument was based on Sorensen saying he lacks any substantial connection to Florida and arguing that two emails he sent to Hammer in March do not provide such a connection.

“Mr. Sorensen simply sent two email in one half hour in March to an email address that was published to the world on the internet,” the motion to dismiss said. “That email address, on its face, gave no indication that it was in Florida. Nothing in the text of the email mentioned or suggested a connection to Florida. In today’s age, those two email could have been opened anywhere.”

But U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle on Friday rejected dismissing the case against Sorensen.

“To be sure, Mr. Sorensen says he did not know his email would be routed to Florida,” Hinkle wrote. “But this record shows that Mr. Sorensen could easily have learned — had he cared where he was sending his email — that Ms. Hammer was a Florida resident. In short, Mr. Sorensen intentionally sent the email to Ms. Hammer, wherever she might be, and he should have known the likely destination was Florida.”

In a document filed last month, Hammer’s attorneys wrote that the emails caused harm to Hammer, a former national president of the NRA, and argued that the case against Sorensen should continue.

“This court has specific personal jurisdiction over Mr. Sorensen because he made a conscious decision to seek out Ms. Hammer, a well-known Florida resident and lobbyist, and sent her two emails containing graphic images of gunshot victims, including a photo of President John F. Kennedy’s exposed cranial cavity and photographs of gaping wounds to an unidentified man’s leg,” Hammer’s attorneys wrote.  “Without doubt, Mr. Sorensen selected and sent these particular images to Ms. Hammer because of their gruesome nature and immediate shock value.”

Hammer filed the lawsuit against Sorensen, Connecticut resident Christopher Risica and two men, Howard Weiss and Patrick Sullivan, whose places of residence were unknown. The lawsuit alleged that the men sent harassing and threatening emails, with at least some of the emails using vile language.

Hinkle’s ruling last week also found that Risica was in default for failing to respond to the lawsuit and approved a request by Hammer’s attorneys to conduct investigative “discovery” to determine the identity and residence of Weiss. Hinkle, however, denied such as discovery request related to Sullivan.

“His (Sullivan’s) email was profane and disgusting, but he threatened only to scream in Ms. Hammer’s face if ever he encountered her,” Hinkle wrote. “This is unlikely to be actionable and is not enough to warrant disclosure of Mr. Sullivan’s true identity.”

Hinkle also turned down a request from Hammer’s attorneys to issue an injunction barring the men from sending threatening emails to her during the lawsuit.

“A defendant would show poor judgment at a near-world record level to send Ms. Hammer another threatening email — or any impolite email at all — while this litigation is ongoing,” Hinkle wrote. “The likelihood that a defendant will send such an email is remote. If it happens, Ms. Hammer may renew her motion, and an appropriate injunction can promptly issue.”

Rick Scott offers help to states as hurricane looms

Gov. Rick Scott offered resources and assistance Monday to the governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia as powerful Hurricane Florence threatened the Southeast U.S. coast.

Florida Division of Emergency Management officials have also been in contact with South Carolina, the governor’s office said.

Due to the storm, Scott waived weight requirements for emergency supply and response vehicles through Sept. 17 and put the Florida National Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law-enforcement officers on standby to help in areas affected by the storm.

Florence is one of three hurricanes spinning in the Atlantic, and a disturbance is brewing in the northwest Caribbean Sea that is moving slowly northwest near the Yucatan Peninsula, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Florence is expected to cause dangerous surf conditions and life-threatening rip currents along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

University system looks for funding boost

The Florida Board of Governors is ready to consider a $5.2 billion budget request for the state university system for next year, representing a 3.6 percent increase in spending and including $75 million in additional state performance funding.

The proposal, which will be considered by the university-system board during a two-day meeting that begins Wednesday at New College of Florida, would increase state funding for the system by $183 million in the 2019-2020 budget year.

Overall, it would include $3.2 billion in state funding, along with $1.96 billion in tuition and fees, although there would not be a tuition increase.

The proposal would increase performance funding for the 12 universities to $655 million next budget year, up from $560 million this year. The overall $95 million increase would be a combination of money from the state and from the institutions.

The budget would include $327.3 million in state performance funds, including the $75 million increase, along with $327.3 million in performance funds from the institutions.

The funding is distributed to the universities each year based on 10 measurements of performance by each of the institutions, including graduation rates, salaries of recent graduates, retention of students and student costs.

New metrics include holding the 12 schools in the system to a four-year graduation rate and rewarding schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students, reflected by those receiving federal Pell grants.

The budget proposal would also increase funding for the World Class Faculty and Scholar Program by $20 million, up from the current $91 million. The program is designed to help universities attract top-level faculty and researchers.

The Board of Governors will also consider $30 million for a newly authorized initiative that is designed to identify and reward academic programs throughout the system that “reflect national excellence.”

The board is developing criteria to identify those programs and the proposal envisions a two-year process, where $30 million would be distributed in the first year, followed by another $30 million in the second year.

The board’s proposal includes some $28 million in projects related to individual schools, including $6.4 million for the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering and $12.4 million for Florida Gulf Coast University as part of a three-year plan to boost academic programs and research opportunities at the school.

Those projects are only part of the $324.5 million in proposals advanced by the 12 schools for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which begins in July.

If approved this week by the Board of Governors, the $5.2 billion proposal will be forwarded to the state’s new Governor, who will take office in January, and the Legislature, which will begin its 2019 Legislative Session in March.

Tough primary drains Matt Caldwell’s coffers

A fierce four-way primary for Agriculture Commissioner left Republican nominee Matt Caldwell running low on funds as the general-election campaign got underway, according to numbers posted on the state Division of Elections website.

Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, attorney and medical-marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried, had a little more than $220,000 on hand as September began, even as she once again had to find a new bank for her campaign account.

Caldwell, a state House member from North Fort Myers, started September with about $72,000 in cash on hand in his personal campaign account and the political committee Friends of Matt Caldwell, finance reports show.

As of Aug. 31, Friends of Matt Caldwell had raised $1,794,744, while spending $1,788,846. The spending included $763,808 on advertising between Aug. 11 and the Aug. 28 primary. Caldwell’s personal campaign account had raised $833,881 and spent $767,352 as of Aug. 31, including $178,500 for advertising in the final weeks of the campaign.

Caldwell received nearly 37 percent of the 1.5 million votes cast in the GOP primary.

Meanwhile, Fried, who handily defeated two other Democrats in the primary, started September with $112,844 available in her campaign account. Fried’s political committee, Florida Consumers First, had $111,823 on hand as of Aug. 31.

Fried drew attention last month after Wells Fargo announced it was closing her campaign account because of her ties to the medical-marijuana industry. Wells Fargo issued a statement that it had to “comply with federal law on the topic of marijuana, even in instances where state laws may differ.”

Fried said Monday during a media conference call that she also was informed Aug. 29 by BB&T that an account she had opened was being closed.

Fried said BB&T singled her out for her “political views and my advocacy to expand patient access to medical marijuana in Florida.” She said she’s been approached by a state bank about handling her finances.

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