ORLANDO | As hundreds of Catholic advocates converged on the state Capitol, they did so with a common mission: Speak with their local legislatures on four key issues officials would vote upon during the current legislative session.
Some 329 Catholics of all ages arrived by the busload to attend Catholic Days at the Capitol Feb. 6-7, 2024, in Tallahassee. Organized by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the lobbying arm of Florida’s bishops, the annual event offers participants many opportunities, including seeing the legislative process in action and putting their faith and civic responsibility into action.
On Feb. 6, they shared a breakfast with Florida’s bishops and legislators, and later each delegation took a group photo with their bishop. A highlight of the event is the 49th annual Red Mass of the Holy Spirit, which was concelebrated by Florida’s bishops Feb. 7, to pray for those working in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. The homily was offered by Msgr. Dariusz J. Zielonka, chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Miami.
Before participants talk with their respective legislators (Florida House representatives and Florida senators) in individual meetings, the conference offers a legislative briefing that focuses on four bills that could serve as discussion points. Its backgrounders also offer responses to possible objections legislators might raise of the bills.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops have long-stated how healthcare is a basic human right for all people, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized. While the Church supports expansion of Medicaid, the country’s health care program for the poor, under the Affordable Care Act, the reality is Florida is one of only 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid.
But in its backgrounder in support of Senate Bill (SB) 7016/House Bill (HB) 1549, the conference noted that it appreciates that many of Florida’s leaders want to explore expanding access in other ways, such as this legislation known as “Live Healthy.” The bill acknowledges how Florida’s population is likely to grow by almost 300,000 new residents every year for the next five years, jumping from 22.6 million residents to 25.4 million over the next 10 years. Yet estimates project that Florida will have a potential shortfall of nearly 18,000 doctors and 59,000 nurses by 2035.
The primary goals of this healthcare legislation are to:
• Expand access to care by recruiting and retaining a highly skilled health care workforce — from primary care doctors and nurses to specialists, physician assistants to mental health professionals.
• Support patients at every stage of life by improving access to preventive services, primary care, and mental health care services and reducing reliance on expensive, ineffective emergency rooms.
• Protect the vulnerable by incentivizing more doctors to serve the poor and increasing funding for individuals living with disabilities.
While the bill does not include insurance concerns, according to Chanta Combs, associate director for health for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bill “explores multiple avenues to increase supply to meet demand.”
Combs explained the bill substantially modifies multiple regulatory statutes related to licensing for healthcare providers to reduce the administrative burden of getting a license and also expands the scope of practice for several provider types too. The bill also increases funding for medical residencies, tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness to “entice doctors to stay in Florida.
“The expansion of the workforce taps into the concept of supply and demand. Right now, the demand for health care services outpaces the supply of providers,” Combs said. “This imbalance, of course, limits access, which, in turn, has an inflationary impact on costs.”
IMPROVING FLORIDA’S PRISONS
Imagine working in a workplace of concrete walls and little to no windows with no air conditioning. Where one out of three workplaces are in desperate need of repair for issues such as leaking roofs, corroded doors, broken windows, and crumbling stucco. Where you might have to get from one end of a large campus by walking outside with minimal overhanging to protect from the sun.
Welcome to the Florida prison system, where staff vacancy rate is approximately 26%, with turnover rates between 30%-76%. For this reason, and more, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops asks for support of Florida’s Prison System’s Strategic Reform, which allows for the appropriation of resources necessary to reform the prison system, improve failing infrastructure, retain staff, and create a path toward a more efficient correctional system that ensures public safety.
Just as Florida’s general population increases, so does the inmate population. The state anticipates that the inmate population will exceed that capacity by next year and increase by 18%-32% in less than 20 years. And the existing inmate population is aging, with almost 29% of current prisoners are older than 50 with chronic health issues. Despite those numbers, the state is failing to meet the increased demand for healthcare services, projecting a deficit of 420 hospital beds by 2030.
“God’s call for justice in tandem with mercy emphasizes the inherent dignity of both victims and their perpetrators,” the conference stated in its backgrounder. “As such, the Church encourages policymakers to direct public resources toward not only modernizing existing, and building new prisons, but also towards supporting programs of hope that challenge, encourage, and reward offenders for changing their behaviors and learning new skills.”
The backgrounder explained the status of the proposal, which is a 20-year master plan to identify, quantify, and prioritize DOC’s staffing and capital improvement need. Reform objectives include the construction of three prisons and two hospitals over 20 years, closing four maintenance-intensive facility prisons within the next 20 years, reopening 8,294 beds across 16 prisons in the upcoming four years, building 4,640 new dorm beds at existing sites across 18 prisons by 2030.
House’s proposed budget provides only $50 million in “non-reoccurring” funds. However, the Senate’s proposed budget provides $100 million “recurring” annually for 30 years, a total of $3 billion, to address both long-term construction projects and the repair of our aging prison infrastructure.
So, would spending $582 million on prison air conditioning make a bigger difference than increasing salaries and benefits of prison workers? The conference stated that despite salaries for corrections officers increasing by 31%, retention rates are declining. Working conditions are important to any worker in any field, especially in a demanding one in a prison environment.
“Less than 25% of Florida’s corrections facilities have air conditioning. Temperatures inside buildings without air conditioning can soar 15 degrees higher than the temperature outside,” the conference stated. “Extreme heat and humidity increase agitation and the possibility of unruliness among inmates, creating a potentially dangerous environment for employees. Further, facilities without climate control hinder staffing objectives and retention rates. As a result, Florida’s National Guard has been working inside prisons for over a year, with 300 still serving in these facilities.”
TWO BILLS, TWO VERY DIFFERENT PRO-LIFE ISSUES
Among the four issues participants addressed with local representatives were two covering very different issues, yet issues still under the respect life umbrella — pornography and the preborn. The conference called for support of House Bill 3/Senate Bill 1792 — Restricting Minors’ Access to Harmful Materials Online. The bill focuses on protecting minors from online access to harmful materials by requiring age verification for pornographic websites. According to the backgrounder the bill requires a reasonable age-verification method be conducted by a non-governmental, independent third-party not affiliated with the commercial entity. Any personal identifying information used to verify age may not be retained by a commercial entity or other third-party once the age has been verified; or used for any other purpose. Louisiana, Utah, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have recently passed similar legislation.
“Unfettered access to pornography significantly hinders and endangers proper formation of the mind and conscience,” the backgrounder states. “This bill will make it easier to protect minors from the harms of pornography and assist parents with the moral and intellectual formation of their children.”
The conference also asked for support of Senate Bill 476/House Bill 651, the Civil Liability for the Wrongful Death of an Unborn Child, which allows parents to recover damages for mental pain and suffering along with medical and funeral expenses for the wrongful death of their preborn child. Unlike 43 other states, currently, Florida law does not allow parents to recover damages in the death of their pre-born child as a result of negligence. By adding “the parents of an unborn child” to the list of people who are defined as “survivors,” SB 476 and HB 651 allow a parent to file a lawsuit under Florida’s wrongful death statute with the purpose of recovering damages in the negligent death of their preborn child.
The backgrounder explains that the House bill clarifies that “such wrongful death action may not arise against the mother for the wrongful death of her own unborn child.” Both bills would only allow a parent to bring a lawsuit against abortionists if they had a role in a “wrongful,” “negligent,” or “unlawful” death of a preborn child. While abortion remains legal, legal abortions that occur without incident are not addressed in this bill.
Read this article of the Florida Catholic