Past CEO of a huge for-profit health-care company, Gov. Rick Scott (FL), thought that he had found a way to save the state a fortune that he could then give to large corporations. Under his leadership Florida became the first state to require welfare applicants to take drug tests and refuse welfare for a year to those who failed. The new law was based on Scott’s belief that drug use was extremely high among people applying for welfare. The ACLU has already challenged the constitutionality of this law, the first in the nation, as a violation of protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Back in 2004, a federal appellate court struck down a similar law in Michigan.
The result during the first few weeks of testing must have come as a shock to Scott: only 2.5 percent of those applying for welfare and forced to take drug tests came up positive, far below the state and national average of over 6 percent. Conservatives have had a lot to say about the Democrats waging a “class war” when they want the wealthy to pay the same percentage of taxes as the middle class. This law clearly demonstrates a class war based on erroneous beliefs and stereotypes: people are on welfare because they make bad decisions, they are lazy, and they are likely to be drug addicts who want to use taxes to get high. Even people who have been on welfare carry the same beliefs: the bill was sponsored by State Rep. Jimmie Smith, who had signed up for a federally funded program that helps poor families buy food for children up to 5 years old.
Scott’s “study” of welfare applicants and drug use is not the first. Florida’s 2001 pilot drug test program had the same results–no significant difference in drug use among aid recipients. A 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found no significant difference in the rate of illegal-drug use by welfare applicants and other people. Another study found that 70% of illegal-drug users between the age of 18 and 49 are employed full time.
Florida watchers came up with other recommendations for saving state money. Columnist and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen offered to pay for drug testing for all 160 members of the state legislature in what he calls a “patriotic whiz-fest.” This could be a good idea. Several elected officials have admitted to using (or have been caught with) illegal drugs while they continue to support locking people up for offenses they committed, and most often got away with, themselves.
Using Scott’s premise that “being clean and sober should be mandatory for anyone collecting public money,” I have another suggestion. Everyone receiving tax subsidies (that’s public money) should have to take drug tests. If they fail them, tell them that their subsidies are suspended and they should come back in a year to try again. Just think if we required monthly drug tests to management staffs of Exxon, Wells Fargo, Citibank, BP, General Electric, AT&T, Motorola, etc. as well as farmers and all others getting money from federal taxes.
Scott’s idea for saving money is costing the state more money than saving. Under the rules of the program, the state must reimburse recipients who receive negative test results. Out of the first 40 tested, the state paid about $1,140 for the 38 negative tests, while saving less than $240 a month by denying benefits over the two positive tests.
Looking at Scott’s background shows that he knows a great deal about fraud. After founding the Columbia Hospital Corporation, which merged with Hospital Corporation of America, he became CEO of Columbia/HCA, the largest private for-profit health care company in the U.S. Scott was forced to resign in 1997 amid a scandal over the company’s business and Medicare billing practices; the company ultimately admitted to fourteen felonies which cost it over $2 billion, by far the largest fraud settlement in U.S. history.
Columbia/HCA admitted systematically overcharging the government by claiming marketing costs as reimbursable, by striking illegal deals with home care agencies, and by filing false data about use of hospital space. They also admitted fraudulently billing Medicare and other health programs by inflating the seriousness of diagnoses and to giving doctors partnerships in company hospitals as a kickback for the doctors referring patients to HCA. They filed false cost reports, fraudulently billing Medicare for home health care workers, and paid kickbacks in the sale of home health agencies and to doctors to refer patients. In addition, they gave doctors “loans” never intending to be repaid, free rent, free office furniture, and free drugs from hospital pharmacies.
Trying to save money through drug testing of welfare applicants isn’t the only way that Scott has tried to help the poor people of his state. With the country’s fourth-highest unemployment rate, its second-highest rate of people without insurance, and a $3.7 billion budget gap this year, he turned away scores of millions of dollars in grants available under the Affordable Care Act. His justification is that he opposes Obama’s health care plan, but his refusal of federal money goes much farther than the parts of the law that he opposes.
Scott refuses to pursue grants worth many more millions, grants aimed at moving long-term care patients into their homes, curbing child abuse through in-home counseling, and strengthening state regulation of health premiums. He shunned money to help sign up eligible recipients for Medicare, educate teenagers on preventing pregnancy, and plan for the health insurance exchanges that the law requires by 2014. He also failed to authorize an $8.3 million federal grant won by a county health department to expand community health centers. Although he tries to look virtuous in these refusals, there is little connection to the “unconstitutionality” of Florida’s court cases against the health care law from Florida.
After rejecting money to help abused children, seniors, people in poverty, etc., he did take $2.5 million from the Affordable Care Act—for abstinence-only education. A Florida statute requires schools to teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the “expected standard.” The programs are not required to teach explicit HIV prevention methods, even if students ask about safer-sex practices. In 2007, people younger than 25 accounted for 15 percent of new HIV cases in Florida. Florida ranked sixth among states for its teen pregnancy rates in 2009. Among 2008′s teen mothers, 57 percent reported they weren’t using birth control, and 45 percent thought they couldn’t become pregnant. Furthermore, Florida had the fourth largest population of people living with HIV in the nation, with a nearly twice the national HIV-incidence rate among 16-19 year-olds in 2006.
Florida’s education “reform” legislation eliminates teacher tenure and bases 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations on standardized test scores. The legislation also calls for merit pay for test-score gains and requires districts to develop tests in every subject that is taught, including art, band, choir, physical education, and on and on. Only one problem for the schools: the multi-billion-dollar mandate is unfunded for both merit pay and test development.
Last spring Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money to help build high-speed rail structures inside his state, a project that would have provided lots of jobs sending taxes to the state. Florida’s unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, down from 11.1 percent six months ago. After Scott turned down the funds, the Northeast Corridor has been allocated about one-third of that money. He didn’t save the country any money–just made things worse for the people of Florida.
In 2012 unemployed people won’t get up to 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits as they have in the past. The new law depends on the state’s unemployment rate; Florida is the first state to tie the two together. The law slashes unemployment benefits to a maximum of 12 weeks if the unemployment rate is at 5% or below. The most Floridians could get is 23 weeks, if the unemployment rate is 10.5% or higher. As in all other Florida decisions, the cut is to protect companies that pay unemployment taxes. The new law will save $32.10 per employer which Rep. Doug Holder, the legislation’s sponsor, hopes will entice all business to Florida.
Scott also signed a law that makes Florida the first state in which it’s illegal for any physician to “ask questions concerning the ownership of a firearm.” The reason for the law was a pediatrician’s question to the mother of a young child about whether she kept guns in the house. The mother refused to answer because “whether I have a gun has nothing to do with the health of my child.”
Every day in America 65 children and teenagers are shot; eight of them die. One-third of American homes with children under 18 have at least one firearm in them; more than 40 percent of those households store their guns unlocked; and a quarter of those homes store them loaded. Pediatricians are trained and explicitly advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics to inquire about the presence of open containers of bleach, swimming pools, balloons, and toilet locks in the homes of their patients to educate parents about potentially lethal dangers around the home. But not in Florida, at least when it comes to guns.
Another way that Scott tried to trample on people’s rights in Florida was a kangaroo-court system for foreclosures. With a huge backlog of these—more than 46000 last year, he created a secretive temporary courts to privilege creditors and disadvantage poor homeowners. This is done by turning Florida from a judicial foreclosure state (where the foreclosure has to be approved by the courts) to a non-judicial foreclosure state (where the lender merely has to advertise the pending foreclosure and can then foreclose if the owner does not go to court to oppose the action). The plan failed because, in non-judicial states, the bank has the deed, while in judicial foreclosure states, the borrower is the owner of the house, but has granted the lender a lien against it. It couldnt be applied retroactively.
Another of Scott’s failures was when the legislature tried to push through bills that allowed police to act as immigration officials and verify the immigration status of people they take into custody. The bills also required employers to corroborate job applicants’ immigration status through the federal e-verify program. Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, businesses that own private prisons, will be very disappointed. As part of his budget, Scott had shifted some public prisons over to private companies that receive $90 daily for every prisoner. Every new immigrant prisoner would have been a potential source of corporate revenue.
Tea Partyers in Florida claim that they want limited government, but it’s the state where the legislature piles more and more restrictions onto the people, as evidenced by the new anti-abortion bill just introduced. As if there weren’t enough last year!
Florida is the place where conservatives cheered the hypothetical death of someone without health insurance and booed a gay soldier. It’s also the place where the co-chair of Rick Perry’s leadership team believes that gay marriage causes tornados. Pam Olsen, founder of the Tallahassee House of Prayer, thinks that its increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage among American Christians is causing destructive natural disasters across the country.
Reporting on the new “reformed” Republican party certainly gives credence to the old saying “truth is stranger than fiction.”