- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - Some 726,000 uninsured Floridians suffered from mental health and substance abuse issues in 2014 and nearly half of them could have gotten treatment if the state expanded Medicaid, federal health officials said Monday.

The Obama administration released a report saying 2.8 million adult Floridians struggled with behavioral health in 2014 and 309,000 of those are uninsured with incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That means many of those 309,000 fall into a gap where they earn too much to qualify for regular Medicaid and too little to get a subsidy in the federal marketplace. The report noted about 26 percent of uninsured Floridians struggle with those issues, but only 8.8 percent receive treatment. Mental health disorders range from depression and anxiety to more debilitating diseases like bi-polar and schizophrenia.

Federal health officials say among the roughly 30 states that have expanded Medicaid to low-income residents, health providers report an increase in patients seeking preventive care and taking medications. Experts say treating behavioral health conditions has been shown to reduce rates of disability, increase employment productivity and decrease criminal justice costs. Nineteen states including Florida have opted against expanded Medicaid insurance programs.

“Mental illnesses if left untreated are more debilitating over time … by giving them an easy door into treatment you really have a chance to improve their productivity,” said Richard Frank, an assistant secretary with Health and Human Services.

Medicaid expansion has been a contentious issue in Florida. In last year’s session, the Senate voted to expand Medicaid coverage access while the House and governor were against it. The topic was a non-starter during this past legislative session and it’s unlikely the measure will make much progress in the 2017 session, with conservative House leaders warning they can’t trust the federal government to make good on its promise to pay for the program for the first few years.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott said he had recently signed a budget that included $1.1 billion in funding to provide mental health and substance abuse to thousands, which represented a more than $40 million increase.

Florida has one of the highest uninsured populations in the country and has led the nation in enrollment in the federal marketplace, surpassing even California, with 1.7 million Floridians buying insurance in the past few years.

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