Sales tax hike would fund new Manatee County health care plan

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 9, 2013 

MANATEE -- A county health care plan financed by a proposed half-cent sales tax increase calls for prevention and care organized through "patient-centered medical homes" as its key components.

The plan, to be considered Tuesday by the Manatee County Commission, emphasizes primary and preventive services, early intervention, health education, case management and coordination of health and social services.

It would be administered by the county administrator's office or its designee, and monitored by an advisory committee, the plan states.

Among its proponents are a hospital administrator and the chair of a nonprofit group that focuses on local health care needs, while the Tea Party Manatee president is staunchly opposed.

Manatee County commissioners last week 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.

The sales tax rate would go up from 6.5 percent to 7 percent if voters approve.

The plan sets out how an estimated $23 million annually generated by the tax increase would be used when current funds for indigent care are exhausted in 2015.

The sales tax hike is also part of a three-pronged effort to lower property tax rates by 13 to 26 percent by shifting costs to a broader base of payers, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said.

The plan's mission is to assure quality health care treatment and preventive services to medically needy residents "of all ages, who lack other

health care coverage, and to develop and implement public health programs and policies that foster a healthy community," it said.

Eligibility is restricted to Manatee County residents with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; it was unclear Friday what that standard translated to in terms of dollars.

The plan also does not address whether undocumented immigrants would be eligible; the national health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, excludes them.

Among those supporting the plan are Jonathan Fleece, lawyer, author and health care expert, who chairs the nonprofit Manatee Healthcare Alliance, and has written a book about the future of health care.

"The Manatee Healthcare Alliance is in full support of the county's proposed health care plan because it will foster improved community health, and greater access to health care, leading to a prosperous community both economically and socially," he said Friday.

Also in favor is Kevin DiLallo, chief executive officer at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

"I think it will provide the resources that the community needs to maintain a good health care system in our community," DiLallo said. "Spreading it out through the sales tax, I think, is a brilliant idea."

He said his institution spent about $10 million a year on indigent health care, but was reimbursed only about $6.9 million.

Opposing the plan is Steven Vernon, president of Tea Party Manatee.

"When we read this plan, in bright, blinking letters it says: 'Obamacare for the county,'" Vernon said. "This plan is much, much broader in scope than simply taking care of our indigent residents."

He said he fears it might be so broad that it would require paying for items like other peoples' fitness programs.

He was also puzzled as to why it needed to be done so quickly.

"We should wait to see how national health insurance shakes out," said Vernon. "People still aren't sure how Obamacare works out. I don't see the rush."

The Manatee County Commission is slated to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at County Administrative Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter

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