MIAMI — Gov. Rick Scott of Florida reversed himself on Wednesday and announced that he would expand his state’s Medicaid program to cover the poor, becoming the latest — and, perhaps, most prominent — Republican critic of President Obama’s health care law to decide to put it into effect.
It was an about-face for Mr. Scott, a former businessman who entered politics as a critic of Mr. Obama’s health care proposals. Florida was one of the states that sued to try to block the law. After the Supreme Court ruled last year that though the law was constitutional, states could choose not to expand their Medicaid programs to cover the poor, Mr. Scott said that Florida would not expand its programs.
Mr. Scott said Wednesday that he now supported a three-year expansion of Medicaid, through the period that the federal government has agreed to pay the full cost of the expansion, and before some of the costs are shifted to the states.
“While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost, I cannot in good conscience deny Floridians that needed access to health care,” Mr. Scott said at a news conference. “We will support a three-year expansion of the Medicaid program under the new health care law as long as the federal government meets their commitment to pay 100 percent of the cost during that time.”
He said there were “no perfect options” when it came to the Medicaid expansion. “To be clear: our options are either having Floridians pay to fund this program in other states while denying health care to our citizens,” he said, “or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with the Medicaid program as we explore other health care reforms.”
Mr. Scott said the state would not create its own insurance exchange to comply with another provision of the law.
His reversal sent ripples through the nation, especially given the change in tone and substance since the summer, when he said he would not create an exchange or expand Medicaid.
“Floridians are interested in jobs and economic growth, a quality education for their children, and keeping the cost of living low,” Mr. Scott said in a statement at the time. “Neither of these major provisions in Obamacare will achieve those goals, and since Florida is legally allowed to opt out, that’s the right decision for our citizens.”
Mr. Scott now joins the Republican governors of Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio, who have decided to join the Medicaid expansion. Some, like Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, were also staunch opponents of Mr. Obama’s overall health care law. Shortly before his announcement, the governor received word from the federal government that it planned to grant Florida the final waiver needed to privatize Medicaid, a process the state initially undertook as a pilot project. Mr. Scott, who is running for re-election next year, has heavily lobbied for the waiver, arguing that Florida could not expand Medicaid without it.
Mr. Scott’s support of Medicaid expansion is significant, but is far from the last word. The program requires approval from Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature, which has been averse to expanding Medicaid under the health care law. The Legislature’s two top Republican leaders said that before making a decision they would consider recommendations from a select committee, which has been asked to review the state’s options.
“The Florida Legislature will make the ultimate decision,” Will Weatherford, the state House speaker, said. “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.”
Medicaid, which covers three million people in Florida, costs the state $21 billion a year. The expansion would extend coverage to one million more people.
Mr. Scott’s reversal is sure to anger his original conservative supporters.
The governor “was elected because of his principled conservative leadership against Obamacare’s overreach,” said Slade O’Brien, state director for Americans for Prosperity, an influential conservative advocacy organization. “Hopefully our legislative leaders will not follow in Governor Scott’s footsteps, and will reject expansion.”
During his announcement on Wednesday, Mr. Scott said his mother’s recent death and her lifetime struggle to raise five children “with very little money” played a role in his decision.
“Losing someone so close to you puts everything in a new perspective, especially the big decisions,” he said.
Michael Cooper contributed reporting from New York.