TAMPA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott has mounted a sweeping campaign to honor one of the state’s most important voting groups: veterans.
In March, he created a medal for which all Florida veterans are eligible, and he spent the past week touring the state to hang it around hundreds of veterans’ necks.
He also has founded a Florida Veterans Hall of Fame, filed a lawsuit in the controversy over dysfunction in the Veterans Affairs health system, and has been touting his own service by appearing in a “NAVY” baseball cap.
His critics among the Democratic Party call these moves empty political gestures and challenge the substance of Scott’s work on behalf of veterans.
They focus chiefly on the state’s failure to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, which they say has left thousands of veterans who are ineligible for VA services without health coverage.
They also call Scott’s VA lawsuit meaningless because the state has no authority over the VA, and note that before this election year, he vetoed programs for the homeless and other help for veterans.
Some critics even bring up the sorest of subjects for Scott: the 1990s federal fraud case against his former hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, in which the company paid a record $1.7 billion fine.
Columbia/HCA was accused of overbilling federal health care programs for services. Federal records show these programs included Tricare, the federal health care plan for military families, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.
Florida for All — which describes itself as a nonpartisan grass-roots organization but has received funding from Democratic-allied organizations — organized events Thursday challenging Scott on his record with veterans. The events included an appearance in Pinellas Park by state Rep. Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg as well as a news conference call with Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami and two South Florida veterans running for office as Democrats.
Dudley questioned the value of the lawsuit.
“If the governor wants to do something useful, there’s something right in front of him he’s not doing” — expanding the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, he said.
Bullard said Scott “is going around the state, touting his support for veterans. ... Now that it’s election year, he wants us to forget his dubious record in the private sector” at Columbia/HCA.
Scott kicked off a three-day Veterans Service Award tour at a Tampa American Legion post, making a brief speech then spending nearly an hour presenting the award to 200 veterans as they filed past and posed for pictures.
Hundreds more followed at similar ceremonies in seven more cities.
“Our veterans have selflessly fought to defend our freedoms, and it is our responsibility to take every opportunity to thank them for their sacrifice and service to our nation,” Scott said.
He originated the medal with an executive order in March. It is available to any legal resident of Florida who is on active duty or honorably discharged.
The Veterans Hall of Fame, founded last year, has six members, including two from Tampa: the late U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons and Robert J. Silah, retired Navy captain and 2006 Tampa Chamber of Commerce Humanitarian of the Year.
The 2014 members will be inducted this fall.
Scott filed the VA lawsuit in May after officials at VA hospitals in the state refused to allow inspection visits by officials of the state Agency for Health Care Administration.
VA officials responded with an offer of a meeting with the state agency’s officials and a letter from VA attorney William Gunn, which said the hospitals “are components of the Federal government and as such are not subject to Florida laws.”
Federal law restricts release of VA health care records, the agency said.
Asked what Scott hopes to accomplish through the lawsuit, governor’s office spokesman John Tupps responded with a copy of the suit and a three-paragraph, June 5 news release announcing it.
The lawsuit contends that the state agency has authority under Florida law “to inspect all hospitals in the State of Florida ... and to investigate consumer complaints related to health care facilities,” and that it “has received numerous troubling complaints from veterans in Florida ... that raise the prospect of sub-standard patient care and conditions in VA-operated hospitals.”
Expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is another sore subject for Scott.
He has said he favors it, but the state Legislature has refused in the past two sessions to do so, and Dudley and other legislators have said Scott made no attempt to persuade them.
Advocates cite studies estimating Florida has as many as 41,000 veterans who would benefit, although Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair pointed to critics who say that number is exaggerated.