Stark differences of policy positions were evident between the one Democrat and three of the four Republicans running to fill the open Florida House District 44 seat but the differences between the Republicans proved more subtle in a debate Friday, boiling down to who claimed the strongest ownership of particular GOP positions.
The debate sponsored by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce in Ocoee, pitted Democrat Paul Chandler and Republicans Usha Jain, John Newstreet, and Bobby Olszewski, while Republican Bruno Portigliatti sent his regrets.
A few hours after the debate, the West Orange Political Alliance, the political arm of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, announced it had endorsed Newstreet.
With a question asking how they expected to address the estimated 13 percent of Floridians who are without medical insurance as the Affordable Care Act faces repeal, Olszewski said the state needs to focus on “smart business principles.”
“We need to assure that we have less regulation, to be able to work closely with our insurance companies and our providers. And I think the focus needs to be on preventive medicine. We have a shining example of that here in our own community, with Healthy West Orange, and how they are partnering with West Orange Community Health Care District, and working with our local hospitals and community organizations like the YMCA,” Olszewski said. “When we open up the insurance with competition, and work with our providers with preventive medicine, working with opening up the insurance borders, I think we’ll see a better result here in our home state of Florida.”
Newstreet pointed to his experience as a veteran working within the Veterans Affairs health system.
“As a chamber executive [president of the Kissimmee-Osceola County Chamber of Commerce] I have five hospital facilities within Osceola County and I interact with their CEOs. With the state legislature angle, it’s important we begin with the end in mind. In that regard, I think if the aim to lower costs, to improve outcomes, there definitely is some more work to be done there,” Newstreet said. “Some of the things the Legislature looked at this past session that I think will merit further scrutiny, direct primary care, telemedicine, and as alluded to earlier, preventive care and well-being care programs.”
Jain pointed out that while Olszewski and Newstreet may know hospitals and doctors, she is a doctor — an urgent and emergency care physician in the community for 37 years.
“I have been associated with this issue more than anybody because I see these patients crying; they do not have insurance, they have been waiting in the hospital for many hours,” she said. “That is one of the reasons I am running. I cannot see patients being turned away for not getting care. If you don’t get care, you’ll die. Every citizen should have the right to choose their insurance. We have to have competition. And I want to have a state facility where people can be treated whether you have insurance or not.”
Chandler, who owns a medical billing and data management company, said the answer still lies with getting Florida to include the Medicaid expansion offered in Obamacare. “And the second thing I want to work on is expanding mental health resources and support for mental health treatment centers. Florida is the third most-populous state in the country, yet we’re last in mental health spending,” Chandler said.
The four all pledged support for public education and insisted they consider education critical, with Olszewski and Newstreet pointing out they are the sons of teachers and are married to teachers, and Chandler pointing out he used to be a teacher.
Jain responded with empathy for teachers, saying that her “heart goes out to the people teaching our kids. Where they are, they are not getting enough … Everybody should be paid according to what they do.”
Newstreet and Jain both expressed their personal opposition to medical marijuana and while accepting that it is the law in Florida, both said they would work to keep the program from expanding. Newstreet and Olszewski both said the state must work closely with local governments to make sure they have the tools they need to have local safeguards in place.
“As a Coast Guard veteran where my comrades to this day continue to interdict and fight the drug trade, I can’t support this,” Newstreet said. “But it is the law of the land.”
One of the state’s licensed grower-producer-marketer of marijuana products, Knox Medical, is located in Winter Garden, within HD 44.
Chandler expressed strong support for the medical marijuana program and chastised Republicans for not making more of a priority of last fall’s overwhelming approval of Constitution Amendment 2.
And, Chandler added, medical marijuana should be more available to help people reliant on addictive “painkillers and opiates, which have overdoses and kill people.”
All four expressed strong support for funding for Visit Florida, which the Florida Legislature nearly cut by $25 million amid reports and allegations that it had become an out-of-control and unaccountable agency.
House District 44 is home to Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Orlando.
“I think we have a couple of theme parks in House District 44, don’t we?” Olszewski said when asked if he supported Visit Florida. “There is no doubt we need to fund VISIT Florida, but being financially responsible.”
Chandler said VISIT Florida marketing actually contributed to his decision to move to Florida from St. Louis 15 years ago.
Newstreet called tourism the area’s “lifeblood,” and said the tourism community “will have no better friend in Tallahassee than me.”