03/07/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2013

Will Weatherford Admits Medicaid Helped His Family, Stands By Speech Against Florida Medicaid Expansion

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford (R- Wesley Chapel) was cheered when he railed against the expansion of Medicaid in his inaugural address to the legislature on Tuesday.

He's since been forced to admit that Medicaid paid a "mountain" of his own family's medical bills.

Weatherford told legislators expanding Medicaid benefits to about 1.3 million poor Floridians "crosses the line of the proper role of government." But he did express support for a safety net in general, sharing the story of how his uninsured family was helped when his brother Peter succumbed to cancer as a toddler.

"Peter lost his battle with cancer, and my father found himself with a mountain of medical bills that he could never afford to pay," Weatherford told the House of Representatives. "It was the safety net that picked my father up. It was the safety net that picked my family up."

When reporters asked for particulars of the program that helped his family, Weatherford didn't answer directly, saying, "I don’t want to get into the specifics of what my parents had to deal with." A spokesperson later called the Palm Beach Post to say the assistance had come from a hospital charity.

But when reached by the Times/Herald, Weatherford's father said Medicaid paid for more than $100,000 of the family's medical bills. Weatherford reportedly told the Times/Herald again that Medicaid had not paid the family's bills and that he thought his father was mistaken.

Wednesday, Weatherford released a statement acknowledging that it was the Medicaid-backed Medically Needy program that helped his family. The Department of Children and Families, who administers the fund, identifies Medically Needy as a shared-cost Medicaid program for families whose assets are over the limit for standard Medicaid benefits.

"It is not surprising that recollections would be cloudy surrounding a time of great sorrow and difficulty," Weatherford wrote. "Now that the safety net that benefitted my family has been clearly identified, I trust that the debate can return to the important question of Medicaid expansion and its impact on the economic and personal freedom of Floridians."

Medicaid expansion has been a hot topic in Florida, where one-fifth of the state's residents had no health insurance in 2011 and hospitals risk losing federal help they need to treat uninsured patients.

After fighting President Barack Obama's health care reform efforts in court for years, Republican Governor Rick Scott made a major about-face last week when he announced the state would expand Medicaid to more poor families over the next three years -- a term during which the federal government is covering the costs of enrolling those who are newly qualified.

"While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care," Scott said.

Scott's move incensed Florida's tea party conservatives and Weatherford, who released a pointed statement before Scott's press conference, saying it would be the legislature who would made the decision.

“I am personally skeptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of health care in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability,” Weatherford stated, adding that his committee on the health care law would make recommendations “based on principle and rooted in facts.”



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