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Capitol Update: Health, Water Wars

A rundown on Monday’s top news from Tallahassee:

Health Plan Wants Medicaid Contract Blocked

Amid a bidding dispute, a South Florida health plan is asking an appeals court to block the Agency for Health Care Administration from moving forward with a contract for Medicaid managed-care services.

The plan, Care Access PSN, filed a motion Friday in the 4th District Court of Appeal seeking to block a contract with Prestige Health Choice. Care Access and Prestige are competing for a contract under a 2011 law that will lead to most Medicaid beneficiaries enrolling in managed-care plans. Care Access and Prestige sought a contract in Miami-Dade and Monroe as what is known as “provider service networks,” a type of managed-care plan.

AHCA last year awarded a contract to Prestige, drawing a challenge from Care Access. An administrative law judge sided with Care Access’ position that Prestige did not meet legal requirements to get the contract because of questions about Prestige’s ownership structure.

But the judge’s ruling was non-binding, and AHCA issued a final order last month that stood behind its decision to award a contract to Prestige. Care Access appealed the AHCA decision last month and followed up Friday with the motion seeking to stop the agency from moving forward until the appeal is resolved.

“Care Access’ administrative challenge to Prestige’s contract award is not finalized because appeal to this court is pending,” the motion said. “The appeal should be finally resolved before the Prestige contract goes forward.”

House starts moving on ‘telehealth’ plan

With supporters pointing to a need to increase access to health care, a House select committee Monday approved a plan aimed a boosting the use of telemedicine in Florida. Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican and physician, said the bill (HB 751) will bring the state into the “21st century.”

The bill, approved by the House Select Committee on Health Care Workforce Innovation, would set basic standards for telemedicine, which involves physicians providing care remotely through telecommunications and Internet technology.

While widely known as telemedicine, the House bill describes the practice as “telehealth.” Among other things, the bill would address issues such as standards of care and the registration of out-of-state physicians involved in telemedicine. Backers say, in part, it would help provide care to residents of underserved rural areas.

“Patients are demanding access,” said Rep. Travis Cummings, an Orange Park Republican who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

But the Florida Medical Association, an influential physicians group, argued against the bill. David Custin, an FMA lobbyist, compared the proposal to the “wild west” and said it doesn’t include enough regulation on issues such as out-of-state physicians.

“We’re not dealing with commerce,” Custin said. “We’re dealing with health care and people’s safety.”

House panel backs ban on pregnancy discrimination

With courts offering conflicting opinions about the issue, a House committee Monday approved a bill that would make clear it is illegal in Florida to discriminate against pregnant women in such things as employment and public lodging.

Federal law already bars discrimination against pregnant women, but questions remain about whether the issue is covered by state civil-rights laws. The House State Affairs Committee approved a measure (HB 105), sponsored by Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, that would add pregnancy to a state law that bars discrimination on the basis of factors such as race, religion and gender.

The National Federation of Independent Business/Florida raised concerns that the bill could increase potential liability for small businesses. In part, that is because the proposal could expose small businesses to higher damage amounts than under federal law.

But Berman and Rep. Clovis Watson, D-Alachua, said the solution is for businesses not to discriminate against pregnant women.

“If you don’t discriminate against your employees, you don’t have any problems,” Berman said. The committee voted 15-1 to approve the bill, with Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, the only dissenter.

Court overturns DCF on inmate’s parental rights

In a strongly worded opinion, the 1st District Court of Appeal on Monday rejected an attempt by the state Department of Children and Families to terminate the parental rights of a man imprisoned for repeated convictions for driving under the influence.

The Duval County case focused on a man, identified only by the initials S.B., who worked as a plumber and supported three daughters and their half-brother. He began serving a prison sentence in February 2012 after being convicted for the fourth time of driving under the influence.

Three months later, the daughters were taken from their mother, whose parental rights were eventually terminated for failing to appear at a hearing. The three daughters and their half-brother were placed in separate foster homes, and DCF petitioned for termination of the man’s parental rights in August 2013.

The agency based that position on the man’s criminal history and an alleged failure to maintain a relationship with the children while in prison. But a three-judge panel took issue with the agency’s conclusion, saying there was “no testimony that reuniting these children with their father would be harmful” to them.

“DCF did not allege appellant (the father) was ever violent, or that he endangered the children in any way,” said the opinion, written by Judge Robert Benton and joined by judges Philip Padovano and Clayton Roberts. “DCF did not allege that he neglected his children, abandoned them, or ever failed to provide shelter or food for them while he lived with them. DCF presented no evidence of any failure to provide for the children’s developmental, cognitive, psychological, or physical needs, until he was imprisoned.

U.S. Supreme Court wants feds’ opinion on water war

In a sign that it is considering a long-running water dispute involving Florida, Georgia and Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday indicated it wants the federal government’s views on a lawsuit filed last year by Florida.

Justices invited the U.S. solicitor general to submit a brief about the case, which stems from questions about whether Georgia water withdrawals have damaged Apalachicola Bay in Northwest Florida.

The three states have battled for more than 20 years about water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Florida has argued that water use at the top of the system, in the metro Atlanta area, has cut the flow of freshwater downstream to Apalachicola Bay and damaged the area’s signature oyster industry.

Florida filed the lawsuit in October against Georgia, but a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said at the time that the lawsuit was “frivolous.”

Sexual predator bills ready for final votes

A package of bills designed to strengthen sexual predator laws was approved by its final House committee. The House Judiciary Committee combined parts of seven bills to form four bills that exactly match their Senate counterparts and then approved them Monday.

The Senate plans to pass their bills Tuesday and the House is expected to send them to Gov. Rick Scott next week. One bill would require a mandatory 50-year sentence for people who rape children or who are considered dangerous sexual offenders — double the current mandatory penalty.

Lawmakers will also make changes to a program that allows the civil commitment of sexual predators who have finished their prison sentences in an effort to close loopholes that allow the release of some dangerous offenders.

Bill Young II to challenge for Dudley House seat

Bill Young II, son of the late Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, opened a campaign account Monday to run for the state House District 68 seat held by Democrat Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg.

Young entered the legislative race more than four months after the death of his father, who represented the Pinellas County area in Congress for decades. Young, who works for the Largo-based National Forensic Science Technology Center, was rumored to have been considering a run for Congress following his father’s death but did not enter a special election. District 68, which is completely within Pinellas County, is a battleground area, with Democrats holding a slight advantage in terms of registered voters.

In 2012, Dudley took the general election with 50.9 percent of the vote over Republican Frank Farkas and independent Matthew Weidner. Through Jan. 31, Dudley had raised $62,635 for his re-election bid.

In a prepared statement announcing his candidacy, Young alluded to the makeup of the divided district. “My father always said, ‘You don’t win elections by excluding anyone,’ and those words have never been truer. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to have a positive impact on the lives of all Floridians,” he said.

Young is expected to be a stronger challenger to Dudley than Pinellas Park Republican Joshua Black, who had raised $3,630 through January.

Stadium bill approved by the House

A House committee has approved a bill that details the process a sports organization would be required to complete in order to receive sales-tax rebates on new or upgraded stadiums.

Economic Affairs committee chairman Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, sponsored the bill that gives a scoring sheet for the Department of Economic Opportunity to ensure specified guidelines are met. All proposals would need a $100 million minimum in renovation or construction costs. The legislation does not allocate any immediate funds to a project.

Patronis wants to ensure the DEO won’t have to review smaller projects, such as a high school football stadium or spring-training facilities. Representatives from both the Miami Dolphins and Daytona Speedway supported the bill, though Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book said some tweaks are necessary.

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