MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners Thursday voted 5-2 to consider an ordinance calling for a referendum on raising the sales tax by a half-cent to finance health care for the poor.
If voters agree, the increase from the current 6.5 percent sales tax rate would generate an estimated $23 million a year, officials said.
It's unclear what will happen with the reform of the nation's health care system under the new Affordable Care Act, but it is clear a different way to help the poor is needed when county funds run out in 2015, said Deputy County Administrator Karen Windon.
Allowing voters to have their say during a June special election "would change the face of this community," she told the commission.
The plan calls for reinvesting the money in system improvements in order to produce better care at a lower cost, said Mary Ruiz, president and chief executive officer at Manatee Glens, a private Bradenton behavioral health hospital.
"Same amount of money, but more bang for the buck," she said.
"If we do this, people without insurance aren't the only winners -- all of us win," she said.
Asked for specifics on what the money might be spent for, Brenda Rogers, the county director of community services, said "the specifics of the plan have yet to be developed," because direction from the board is needed first.
When the county sold Manatee Memorial Hospital, its proceeds went into a fund to pay for indigent care.
About $20 million remains in that fund, but in two years, it is expected to be exhausted, said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.
The county appeared to have a higher rate of inappropriate use of expensive hospital emergency rooms and preventable hospitalizations than other counties, said Donna J. Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida, Tampa.
"There's a shortage of primary care providers in this
county," she said. "Greater access to primary care would reduce inappropriate emergency room use and hospitalizations."
Almost 3,000 people a year are dying prematurely here at a rate above the national average, said Jonathan D. Fleece, the chairman of the Manatee Healthcare Alliance, a nonprofit organization made up of local health care leaders.
"Ultimately, isn't that what this whole topic is about?" he asked.
Surveys conducted among local business owners, physicians and the general population concurred on how the lack of affordable health insurance contributes to the diminishing participation in workplace health plans, according to a study done by University of South Florida researchers in 2009.
Consequently, the county has significant number of uninsured and underinsured people.
About 26 percent of Manatee residents aged 65 and under were uninsured, a proportion higher than the national average of 18 percent, and higher than the 23.5 percent among other Florida counties, the study said.
Several commissioners were skeptical because the proposal lacked a detailed plan to solve financial and medical problems posed by the uninsured.
"Who's going to do this, and who's going to administer it?" asked Larry Bustle, commission chairman.
People will still be going to the expensive hospital emergency rooms for basic care, "no matter whether we pass a referendum or not," Bustle said. He asked for a more formal plan of action that would detail how the money would be spent.
But in the end, he voted in favor of considering the ordinance at the commission's March 12 meeting, along with Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Michael Gallen, John Chappie and Robin DiSabatino.
Voting against were Commissioners Vanessa Baugh and Betsy Benac.
"It seems like poor timing to me," said Benac, noting that no one really knows how the upcoming federal reform of the U.S. health care system will affect our area.
Most provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, designed to provide health insurance to an estimated 37 million Americans now without coverage across the U.S., are set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.
"In order to sell this tax, we'll have to have a plan in place," Benac said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.