Inside the Anti-Obamacare Resistance

The two largest states that have so far failed to join in the Medicaid expansion provided for in the Affordable Care Act are Florida and Texas, where Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s office. Looking more closely at the intra-Republican battle over how and whether rich new federal funds can be captured without “surrendering” to the hated Obama provides a fascinating glimpse into conservative ideology and tactics.

Florida offers the murkiest situation. Gov. Rick Scott, who was beginning to look rather toasty in his 2014 re-election prospects, roiled conservative circles in his own state and nationally by suddenly coming out for Medicaid expansion in exchange for permission from the Obama administration to move Medicaid beneficiaries into private managed care plans. But Scott’s been stopped cold by GOP legislators, who in turn seem split between outright rejectionists centered in the state House and those in the Senate who want an even better “deal” that would utilize the state’s CHiP program, which is a privatized premium support scheme, instead of Medicaid for the expansion.

A conservative Florida reporter presents the views of the rejectionist camp quite vividly:

Tom Lauder, a reporter for Media Trackers Florida, which is closely following the Florida Obamacaid debate, says House Republicans appear likely to stand firm….

“Grassroots conservatives are particularly upset with Gov. Scott using the language of the left in his efforts to build momentum for Obamacaid,” Lauder explained. “When Scott argues, ‘I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care,’ he asserts that the only time people have access to goods and services is when government gives it to them as an entitlement. Scott has enraged his conservative base by making this big-government argument. This isn’t a question of whether government should give Medicaid to the poor and disabled, because the poor and disabled already qualify for Medicaid.”

At issue, Lauder says, is the rejection of Scott’s argument that federal funding will come without cost to state taxpayers.

“Scott’s conservative base also resents Scott talking about federal funding as if it were free money,” Lauder added. “Even if the federal government kept its promise to fund most of the Florida Medicaid expansion, which many conservatives doubt will be the case, Floridians pay federal taxes in addition to state taxes. Federal dollars flowing into Florida are not free dollars, even for Floridians.

In other words: Florida’s “true conservatives” don’t much care what mechanism is being used to expand coverage; they’re just flatly against it.

It Texas, meanwhile, the rejectionist camp is led by Gov. Rick Perry, as Ron Brownstein explains in a National Journal column:

Republican state Rep. John Zerwas, a health care leader who represents a district outside Houston, says legislators are getting an earful at home from providers and local officials worried about the state rejecting the money.

Against that backdrop, Zerwas and some GOP state House colleagues are searching for ways to steer Texas into the expansion. They assume the state will not move more people into the existing Medicaid program. But they consider it misguided to simply reject the federal money and deny insurance coverage to so many people who could obtain it. “We are not going to make this better … without doing something that substantially reforms how we deliver Medicaid,” Zerwas says. However, “we have to have a solution for this group of people.”

Last week, Zerwas introduced legislation that would authorize state health officials to negotiate with the Obama administration to expand while delivering coverage for the newly eligible through new means. He likes the deal the administration is discussing with Arkansas, which could allow the state to use Medicaid expansion dollars to instead buy private insurance for its eligible adults, and he believes that approach could be “sellable to the governor.”

Many here, though, wonder if Perry would take any deal. The widespread belief is that he intends to seek the GOP presidential nomination again in 2016, and accepting more Medicaid money would smudge his image of Alamo-like resistance to Obama.

This is an interesting scenario given recent efforts from the Perry camp (outlined earlier this week in another National Journal piece by Michael Catalini) to depict the swaggering, gaffe-prone Texan as “ahead of his time” in understanding the need for Republican outreach to Latinos. Notes Brownstein:

[I]f state Republicans reject federal money that could insure 1 million or more Hispanics, they could provide Democrats with an unprecedented opportunity to energize those voters—the key to the party’s long-term revival. With rejection, says Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, Republicans “would dig themselves into an even deeper hole with the Hispanic community.”

It’s unclear how this will all play out in Florida and Texas. But nobody recently has lost any money betting on the hard-core conservative approach, particularly on an issue as incendiary to the Right as Obamacare. That rejecting any sort of coverage expansion beyond that absolutely required by the ACA would mean leaving vast sums of federal money on the table would in fact be considered a badge of honor by a lot of the people involved.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.