Two major stories about life in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida broke this week, but you’ve probably only heard about the one that he desperately wants you to know about.
If you’ve been following the news, you likely know that last Thursday, his administration blocked the College Board’s new Advanced Placement class on African American history from being taught in the state, arguing that it “significantly lacks educational value.” DeSantis himself has said the decision was necessary because “we want education, not indoctrination,” and criticized its references to “Queer theory.” The move drew criticism from Democratic officials in Florida and in the White House, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calling the decision “incomprehensible.”
The AP blockade is perhaps the quintessential DeSantis stunt, a crude culture war salvo with rich symbolic power and roots in the right-wing press that targets a major liberal institution but whose concrete material impacts are relatively minimal. The governor’s fans in the right-wing commentariat are elated, his critics on the left are firing off responses, and the controversy is swallowing up newspaper column inches and TV news segments. After a period of middling presidential poll numbers, DeSantis is once again the lib-owning center of attention.
DeSantis’ political strategy is calculated and deliberate. “By leaning into high-profile battles as a culture warrior par excellence for the most reactionary segment of the American public,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote Tuesday, “DeSantis has made himself the hero of conservative elites and the bête noire of liberals and Democrats without so much as mentioning his radical and unpopular views on social insurance and the welfare state.”
Which brings me to a second major story out of Florida that hasn’t received anywhere near the same amount of national attention. The Miami Herald reported on Saturday that a huge number of Floridians are about to lose federal health insurance coverage thanks to DeSantis and his political allies. According to the Herald:
Almost a million Floridians are slated to lose their Medicaid coverage starting in April once the federal COVID-19 emergency comes to an end. Florida is one of 11 states that did not expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, which means tens of thousands of Florida families are expected to fall into the Medicaid access gap.
During the pandemic, to make sure there was continuous access of care, Medicaid participants were automatically re-enrolled, but now, their eligibility will be checked again. In Florida, more than 1.87 million people gained Medicaid coverage from March 2020, when the pandemic began, to December 2022, a 50 percent increase, according to state enrollment data. As of December, more than 5.6 million people in Florida were covered by Medicaid.
“This is going to be a major, major wave of people losing coverage,” said Shirley Dominguez, program coordinator at Epilepsy Alliance Florida Navigation Program.
The Affordable Care Act extended Medicaid “to nearly all adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level,” with the federal government picking up 90% of the tab. But in response to conservative litigation, the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices ruled that states had to opt in to that expansion. Many red states did not do so, particularly in the early years following the ACA’s passage, when Republican opposition was at its most stiff.
Florida remains one of the 11 holdout states that have not adopted Medicaid expansion. If the state did so it could provide health coverage to 800,000 Floridians while saving the state $3.5 billion, according to the Florida Policy Institute.
Unfortunately for poor Floridians and the state’s budget, DeSantis opposed the ACA before running for office, voted in Congress to repeal it and strip health insurance from tens of millions of Americans, and, as governor, has refused to push for Medicaid expansion. Instead, the state has retained some of the nation’s most stringent requirements for accessing its coverage.
Medicaid expansion is actually a major fissure in the GOP. While the holdouts have all seen Republican governors or state legislatures block expansion, leaders in other deep-red states like Utah and Idaho have implemented the policy and touted its success. John Kasich, who implemented Medicaid expansion during his tenure as Republican governor of Ohio, gave testimony to North Carolina legislators last year in which he urged them to follow suit.
“Great states can not only take care of some of the people, but they have to take care of all of the people in one way or another to make sure that they have an opportunity to be able to have a decent life and to figure out what their God-given purpose is,” he told them.
DeSantis apparently disagrees. But rather than make the case for why it should be difficult for poor people to get health care for their children, he’d prefer to talk about Florida being the state “where woke goes to die.”
Either DeSantis is an ideologue who is personally committed to keeping Floridians from accessing government health insurance, or he’s a craven partisan who is doing whatever he thinks will win him votes in the Republican primary. Either way, journalists should be paying attention to the story DeSantis doesn’t want to tell, not just the one that he does.