WASHINGTON — “It is not a white flag of surrender,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.
This was technically true: Scott did not wave a banner of any color when he announced Wednesday that he wants Florida to expand Medicaid, a key piece of Obamacare. But make no mistake: Scott, a tea-party Republican and outspoken critic of the law, was laying down arms in defeat. The former hospital executive won his gubernatorial race in 2010 by campaigning against Obamacare, and as governor he fought the law in court. Even when the Supreme Court ruled against his position last year, he vowed defiance. “We’re not going to implement Obamacare in Florida,” he said then. “We’re not going to expand Medicaid.”
The about-face by Scott, the seventh Republican governor to accept Obama’s expansion of government-funded health care for the poor, is a crucial validation of the president’s signature initiative. In his announcement, Scott made a moral case for the Medicaid expansion as compelling as the law’s proponents ever made.
“This country is the greatest in the world, and it’s the greatest largely because of how we value the weakest among us,” Scott, in blazer and open-collar oxford, said in his announcement. “It shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code or your tax bracket. No mother or father should despair over whether they have access to high quality health care for their sick child.” With federal funds covering the cost, “I cannot in good conscience deny Floridians that need it access to health care.”
Conscience is trumping politics elsewhere, too, even as the tea party maintains its grip on Republicans in Washington. Only 13 states, mostly in the South, have so far opted out of the Medicaid expansion, according to a compilation by The Advisory Board Company, a research and consulting firm. Twenty-three have opted in, accepting federal funds (100 percent for three years and at least 90 percent after that) to extend Medicaid to those with incomes up to about $31,000 for a family of four. States “are deciding this deal is simply too good to pass up,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters Thursday. In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich urged lawmakers this week to “examine your conscience” before opposing his plan to embrace the Medicaid expansion. Invoking his own faith, Kasich said “I can’t look at the disabled, I can’t look at the poor, I can’t look at the mentally ill, I can’t look at the addicted and think we ought to ignore them. For those that live in the shadows of life, those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored. We can help them.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared earlier this month that the Medicaid expansion “makes sense for the physical and fiscal health of Michigan.” And in Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, a hardened Obama foe, justified her decision to embrace the Medicaid expansion with language similar to that used by the law’s proponents. “With this move, we will secure a federal revenue stream to cover the costs of the uninsured who already show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms,” Brewer said in her State of the State address. “Health care premiums are raised year after year to account for expenses incurred by our hospitals as they provide care to the uninsured.”
In Florida, the dwindling band of tea-partyers was furious with Scott, calling him a “Benedict Arnold.” But the cause he supposedly betrayed has already lost. After following the tea-party agenda over the last two years, Scott has the support of just one in three Floridians. Now he’s acting like a competent executive. He said he would evaluate the expansion over time and decide whether changes should be made. That’s a great idea. It’s too bad the law’s opponents wasted three years hollering about socialism and tyranny. Scott argued that the Supreme Court and the 2012 election made Obamacare inescapable, but he also made a personal appeal for the expansion. The recent death of his mother gave him “a new perspective,” he said. “I thought about my mom’s struggles raising five children with very little money. I remember my mom’s heartbreak when she struggled to find health care for my brother … I don’t want any parent to worry like my mom did.”
“My top priority continues to be to make Florida the global leader for job creation,” the tea-party traitor said. “But we also have to be sensitive to the needs of the poorest and the weakest among us who struggle to access affordable, high-quality healthcare.”
Barack Obama couldn’t have said it better himself.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.