Republican Gov. Rick Scott defended himself Thursday against criticism that he was overstating how much the federal health care overhaul would cost his state, saying it's unclear how much the federal government will fund.
His comments came a day after the state health care agency reduced its estimate of Florida taxpayers' share of the cost from $26 billion over a decade to $3 billion. The revision fueled Democrats' accusations that Scott - a longtime critic of President Barack Obama's health care reform - was overstating the numbers to justify his opposition.
The governor has maintained that the earlier figure is realistic, saying it's not clear what the changes would cost the state. The governor said he's earnestly seeking the real cost of the plan, adding he met with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Washington this week to get a handle on exact figures.
"We don't know what it's going to cost. We don't know what the federal government is going to fund," he said during a stop at a Fort Lauderdale high school.
The higher figure issued in December by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration assumed that the federal government would change the law and cut money now pledged to the states, legislative budget analysts said. The agency drew up the new estimates at the urging of the Florida House and released them late Wednesday. The Obama administration has offered to absorb the cost for the first three years and pick up 90 percent of the tab after that.
Florida spends about $21 billion a year to cover nearly 3 million of the state's poorest residents, about half of whom are children.
The Obama administration wants to offer coverage to more residents under Medicaid and include those making up to 133 percent of the poverty level - $29,326 for a family of four in Florida. The changes would also require adding those who are below the poverty level but not eligible for Medicaid, such as childless adults.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that Medicaid is not mandatory and that states can opt out. Scott initially said he would not move ahead with the federal health overhaul, worrying about the cost to taxpayers, but softened his stance after the election.
"My concern is you can't expand a program that you're very concerned you can't even pay for it and then you have to stop it," he said.
The issue has become a predictable partisan squabble with both sides accusing the other of playing politics with the numbers.
Internal emails obtained by news organizations this week reflect that the governor's own budget staff had been cautioned about the assumptions underlying the earlier estimates. Democrats have sharply criticized Scott over his math.
"I have been stunned by the willingness of the governor to tout inflated cost estimates and I am grateful that more thoroughly vetted information is coming to everyone's attention," Hallandale Beach Rep. Joe Gibbons said in a statement. "As responsible stewards of public tax dollars, we should all strive to avoid allowing flawed cost projections from becoming the foundation for important policy decisions."
Even the budget chief for the Florida House, Republican Rep. Seth McKeel, remarked that it was important to base estimates on existing law, not speculation about what would happen to the law in the future.
The new estimates released Wednesday night include a bare-bones estimate of $3 billion, but the agency also included additional figures that suggests the cost could also climb to $9 billion if the state decides to pay doctors and other health care providers more. Current federal rules only require the higher reimbursement rate for two years.
The Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek bristled when a reporter asked whether the $26 billion estimate was based on political or economic projections at a press conference Thursday.
"Actually, at this point in time we've put out our numbers, our assumptions are there and I don't really have anything more to say about it," Dudek said.
Associated Press writer Bill Kaczor contributed to this report from Tallahassee.