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Senator Nelson discusses issues on stop in Fanning Springs

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Healthcare, broadband top list of concerns for Tri-County audience

By Sean Arnold

Healthcare was a hot topic during U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s stop at the Suwannee River Fair and Livestock Association Tri-County Pavilion in Fanning Springs on Aug. 29.

A crowd of around 45, including many local officials from the Tri-County area, gathered to hear the Democratic senator, who soon handed the floor over to those in attendance to voice their concerns over issues that are affecting the area.

The topic of health care was introduced early, as Gilchrist and Levy County officials relayed their problems in dealing with rising costs. Inmate health care was raised as a major example, both in the costs of care that falls on counties, and in the lack of rural healthcare providers, which adds more transport costs for local law enforcement. The need for affordable on-site mental health care for inmates was a key point of the discussion.

Nelson said he hadn’t heard before struggles by counties to fund inmate health care, but added that Florida’s choice to deny Medicaid eligibility expansion in 2015 exacerbates the issue, as places like the Tri-County Area have higher concentrations of low income residents. Florida overall has a significantly higher rate of uninsured residents than the national average.

The expansion, which was backed by the Florida Senate but voted down by House, would have made those living at 138 percent or more of the poverty level eligible for Medicaid, according to Nelson, roughly translating to an individual making $24,000 or less per year.

“Thirty-one states approved that, but Florida would not expand eligibility for Medicaid,” Nelson said. “It was 100 percent federally-funded the first three years, and today and forever it will always be 90 percent federally-funded.

“That makes it harder to serve this population,” added Nelson, who said he would look into ways that inmate health costs could be aided. “It’s a new question to me, so we’ll try to figure it out. Let me stir around.”

Levy County Commission Board Chair John Meeks said a lack of rural healthcare is a problem, noting the extra burden it puts on law enforcement.

“(Better rural health care) would alleviate a lot of expenses,” said Meeks, who suggested that law enforcement from area counties could share in the responsibility of policing a local care center when inmates are receiving care. Currently, Gainesville is the site of the nearest care provider in most cases for the area.

Meeks, after a general welcome from Fanning Springs Mayor Trip Lancaster, introduced Nelson, applauding his work as a longtime public servant, which started when Nelson was elected to the Florida Legislature in 1972.

“He exposed the lies of B.P. early on in the B.P. oil spill, when they were trying to cover up what was going on,” Meeks said. “He’s not afraid to cross the aisle. He does what’s best for the American people, what’s best for Florida.”

Meeks said he was surprised how generous Nelson was with his time as well as how informed he was during a legislative delegation Meeks attended in February.

“Sen. Nelson welcomed me into his office, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, it’s 4:30, he’s getting ready to get out of here.’ But I had all the time I wanted. We talked and talked and talked. The gentleman understood the issues I was there to talk about – that’s a compliment to his staff. He knew about our issues with the internet broadband, he knew about our issues with Georgia – not intentionally – dumping waste into the Suwannee River, he was updated on everything.”

Levy County Property Appraiser Osborn “Oz” Barker also raised the issue of healthcare with Nelson, noting the county’s recent decision to restructure the burden of costs for county employees’ insurance premiums. Barker said it will cost some employees more than $800 per month out of pocket in premiums to maintain a family health insurance plan.

“The costs have just risen and risen to the point where the (Levy) Board (of County Commissioners) and us constitutional officers can’t stand to keep eating up the expense of it, so we’ve had to restructure our employees’ health premiums.”

Nelson said the rate of increase in health insurance costs have declined in recent years, but they continue to rise overall because of the added expenses for things like new technologies, “miracle drugs,” MRIs, and CAT scans. “All the things that are available to us today that we’ve never had before, they’re expensive, so the costs go up each year,” Nelson said. “The question is: Can you keep those costs down as it is registered in the health insurance premiums?

“But what I can’t understand, as the former elected Insurance Commissioner of Florida,” Nelson added, “if you all are in a big pool with other counties around the state, spreading the risk to bring the premium costs down, why you’re not getting the results of that.”

Nelson discussed the country’s troubles with infrastructure and broadband, and even cell phone network service. Fanning Spring Councilman Tommy Darus framed spotty cell service in the area as a safety issue, due to the decline of landlines. Nelson said he’s co-sponsoring a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would deliver $20 billion for the expansion of broadband in “underserved areas.” Nelson said infrastructure improvement is popular, but it’s difficult to find support for its funding. He said a bipartisan agreement is needed for individual and corporate tax reform in order to “take away some loopholes” and generate more revenue for infrastructure spending.

He urged residents to encourage support for the infrastructure bill from their representative, in this case, Rep. Neal Dunn.

“There are 50,000 bridges in this country that are structurally unsound according to the engineers,” Nelson said. “We’re way behind in our rehab. We’re talking about seaports, airports, schools, and we’re talking about expansion of broadband.”

Nelson said SpaceX, the company of American business magnate and engineer Elon Musk, is planning a constellation of satellites that would provide global broadband. The senator said other countries don’t typically face the issue with cell service that are experienced in rural areas of the U.S.

Illegal immigration and border security were among other issues raised by attendees. Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz discussed border security in the context of drug trafficking.

“We ought to have comprehensive immigration reform,” Nelson said. “There are sectors in the economy that don’t want to help with that, because (illegal immigrants) are a source of cheap labor. But there are other sectors, such as agriculture, that is desperate to have access to immigrants who are legal, in order to do the jobs.”

Nelson said companies have exploited immigration laws that are meant to allow for immigrants to work in areas with a shortage of labor supply, citing the hiring of workers from India in clerical jobs.

“The system’s been abused and I’ve blown the whistle on it,” he said. “People are going to cheat unless you get immigration reform.”

Nelson noted the opioid epidemic and its effect on all communities, and how the over-prescribing of prescription drugs contributes to the country’s drug problem.

Nelson was critical of Pres. Donald Trump’s budget proposal to extend the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“His proposal cuts the United States Coast Guard 13 percent,” Nelson said. “That is our maritime wall, particular for states like Florida. That’s where the drugs and trafficking are primarily coming into our state.

“He also cuts FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Who’s going to cut FEMA, particular now, after what’s happened in Houston?”

Earlier in the day, Nelson visited Ocala and then the University of Florida, where he discussed rising student loan costs, and presented to Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan, on behalf of he and Sen. Marco Rubio, their resolution recognizing the Gator’s recent national championship.

Nelson opened his talk briefly recounting his family history as a fifth-generation Floridian. He said his paternal grandfather was issued 160 acres in 1917 through the Homestead Act at the current location of the Kennedy Space Center. In 1986, Nelson flew into space on the Space Shuttle Columbia as a Payload Specialist.

“I wandered off on that launch tower by myself,” Nelson recalled of his launch day, “and it just overwhelmed me that my grandparents never could have believed that a grandson was going to literally leave the face of the earth from right next to their old homestead.”