MIAMI (AP) - Florida's Republican lawmakers remain staunchly opposed to expanding Medicaid - a system they've repeatedly said is too expensive and doesn't improve health outcomes. Yet Florida's Medicaid rolls are expanding under the Affordable Care Act.
That's because people trying to sign up for health insurance under Obama's new health law are finding out - to their surprise - that they qualify for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor.
Some 245,000 Floridians were added to the Medicaid rolls between October and the end of February. That's a more than 8 percent increase. The Sunshine State is one of ten states that accounted for more than 80 percent of the 3 million new Medicaid enrollees under the Affordable Care Act, according to Avalere Health, a market research and consulting firm. But Florida was the only state of the ten, which include California, Oregon and Washington, that didn't expand Medicaid.
Florida's newest enrollees include more than 51,000 children, according to health advocacy group Florida CHAIN.
As parents began applying for their own health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, they discovered that their children were eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Many weren't enrolled.
"It has been an eye opening experience to learn how many families were not aware that their children could be covered for health care and heart-warming to give them the good news. I see immediate relief and gratitude in their eyes and words," said Lynne Thorp, an enrollment counselor in Fort Myers.
Lawmakers repeatedly acknowledged last year that the massive advertising campaigns, enrollment drives and celebrity endorsements surrounding Obama's health law would likely lead to an increase in regular Medicaid enrollment.
That's what happened to Donna Refuse, 44, when she tried to sign up for insurance as the marketplace first opened in early October. The unemployed Miami mother of two thought that people without an income - like herself - would have access to affordable insurance.
Refuse was shocked when she was informed that she didn't qualify for a tax credit under the health care law - but she learned that she did qualify for Medicaid.
"It makes me feel better. Now I can go to a doctor and see if anything is wrong," said Refuse.
Lawmakers will have to grapple with the fact that the state's Medicaid costs will rise. The state has to pay 40 percent of the cost.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, when asked about the increase in those signing up for regular Medicaid and the added cost to the state, turned the conversation to Medicaid expansion.
"A lot of the people who would have gotten insurance under Medicaid expansion are going online and they are buying it through the exchange. That's a good thing," he said.
About 3.2 million Floridians were enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP through February, according to federal health officials. That compares to more than 2.9 million enrolled during the three month period before the Affordable Care Act open enrollment.
In an effort to get health coverage for more citizens, federal health officials offered to pick up 100 percent of the cost for the first three years if states agreed to expand for those up to 138 percent of the poverty level. That compares to the current matching rate, where the federal government pays nearly 60 percent of Florida's bill.
Gary Fineout contributed from Tallahassee
Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kkennedyAP
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)