Manatee commissioners delay action on $196,000 health care project with USF, chamber

myoung@bradenton.comMay 7, 2014 

MANATEE -- After a sometimes heated and lengthy discussion, Manatee County commissioners on Tuesday delayed taking action on a proposal to spend $196,000 to analyze the health care needs of the county, including funding for indigent care.

The Manatee County Chamber Foundation has been spearheading the effort for a yearlong project to address local health care concerns.

A sense of urgency for solutions surfaced with the knowledge that the fund, created by the 1984 sale of the old Manatee County Memorial Hospital, will likely be gone in 2016. Last summer, a divided commission voted to push ahead with a $260,000 special election for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund medical care for the indigent.

The proposal was defeated by 61 percent of voters.

Including the money lost in the unsuccessful special election, the county has spent about $700,000 in trying to figure out how to continue funding indigent health care and addressing other health

care-related issues.

Part of the investment was a study funded in 2007 that cost more than $250,000. Officials said progress was made from that study, such as the creation of a health care alliance, but acknowledged that public perception continues to be that an increasingly expensive solution is out of reach.

Careful on Tuesday to not refer to the new plan as a "study," officials said researchers from the University of South Florida College of Public Health would essentially garner public input and compile a database of existing resources to create what Deputy County Administrator Karen Windon said is an "actionable plan, not an academic exercise."

Windon said a key point that surfaced from the failed special election was the need for a defined plan.

"It will build on the work of previous studies and will be a community conversation with providers, consumers and business people so we get a strong understanding of what health care looks like and what the gaps, opportunities and roadblocks are," said Windon.

The chamber foundation, she noted, would act as an oversight committee to ensure that everything is considered and the process remains neutral and transparent.

Each commissioner agreed that a defined plan of action is needed. How to go about doing it and how much it should be on the shoulder of taxpayers is where the division begins.

"This is a raw issue," said District 4 Commissioner Robin DiSabatino. "We need to have a plan, but as it's been said, this is a business issue. At the end of the day, it comes down to a funding source and that is not available today."

DiSabatino said she wants the foundation to seek out financial partners to, at least, assist the county in paying for the proposal. But At-Large Commissioner Carol Whitmore said outside funding would remove the neutrality of the entire process.

"The whole point of keeping it neutral is to keep special interests out of it," said Whitmore.

District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the biggest obstacle to overcome is the public's trust, "which we don't have. We are talking about how we are working on a plan, but if the community is not behind us, we are not going to succeed."

Baugh suggested more public education is needed before the commission takes action.

"I think the community expects more of us after what happened last summer," she said. "If we try and rush this the way we did the referendum, it will fail."

Commissioners unanimously agreed to delay action until the June 17 regular meeting. In the interim, the commission plans to conduct workshops and community meetings in an effort to ensure the public has a full understanding of what the county expects from its latest investment into resolving health care concerns.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark20124.

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