A Florida Democrat caught heat over the weekend for telling a group of newly arrived hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico to say they intend to stay in the state so that they can access health care benefits.
If the evacuees do not check that box on a federal form for Medicare and Medicaid, they will be ineligible to be recipients of those programs.
“You’re going to be asked a question: ‘Do you intend to stay?’” Rep. Darren Soto said in front of a room full of Puerto Ricans. “I urge you to say yes, for now, because otherwise you’re going to get rejected and then you’re going to find yourself without health care.”
One constituent filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee after posting a video of the address on Facebook. Jeremy Fetzer, a former county budget supervisor, said Soto appeared to advise evacuees to lie about their intentions to stay in Florida in order to receive subsidized health care.
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“For a sitting U.S. congressman to advocate somebody lying to get benefits that they would not be eligible for and commit fraud is a huge issue in my book,” Fetzer said in an interview with WFTV in Orlando.
Soto’s office denied those claims in a statement provided to Roll Call.
“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise,” Soto said. “Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida. The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans.”
House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks’ office could not immediately be reached to confirm whether the committee received Fetzer’s complaint or if it planned to investigate.
The committee has not reached out to Soto regarding the episode, a spokeswoman for the congressman said.
Lying on federal forms is a criminal offense that could result in up to five years in prison.
But moving back to Puerto Rico should automatically deactivate any Medicare or Medicaid benefits a person receives as a Florida resident, Soto’s office clarified.