To Manatee County commission, quit putting off indigent health care issue

June 29, 2014 

Cancer patient Edin Gonzalez attributes his life saving cancer treatments to the current availability of indigent health care funds provided by Manatee County during a meeting with commissioner Robin DiSabatino. The county is slated to run out of money next year to fund patients in need like Gonzalez. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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Political paralysis appears to be driving the Manatee County commission debate over the indigent health care issue. The pending depletion of the trust fund that helped pay for medical services for the poor and destitute demands a strong determination to find a solution.

This month commissioners couldn't agree to organize a health care summit in August. That hesitancy comes in the wake of some public objections about paying researchers to study the issue, and the commission tabling that idea.

County administrators conducted two public listening sessions to get input just weeks ago. Though there was little agreement on solutions, Deputy County Administrator Karen Windon saw a strong desire for collaboration.

Those charrettes were part of the county's development of a comprehensive health program to provide the least expensive and most effective care for the indigent while also stressing healthy lifestyles and disease prevention through public education.

A detailed strategic plan needs to be composed for this prudent mission statement, and the county should be looking at successful programs in other jurisdictions as a potential model here.

But once again, the commission appears stuck in political mud. The lack of inertia and urgency is dumbfounding.

The county trust fund that reimburses medical providers for treating indigent patients is forecast to be bankrupt next year.

For years, the county has known the trust fund wouldn't last forever yet has failed to implement a solution. Last year's failed half-cent sales tax referendum seems to have crippled the commission's political will to find one -- even simply holding a health care summit.

At the meeting earlier this month in which the commission declined to pursue a summit, Commissioner Betsy Benac noted voter rejection of a tax increase. But then she also stated the crux of the problem: "I cannot believe this community is not going to do anything on this issue .... does that really mean we're not going to do anything?"

Indeed, the county cannot abandon the idea of reimbursing the medical community -- at low Medicare rates, we must add -- for the treatment of poor and uninsured residents. Those patients cannot be rejected. And their unnecessary and expensive use of hospital emergency rooms exacts a steep toll.

Commissioner John Chappie pointed out the larger problem in solving this issue at the recent commission meeting:

"We're like a ship without a captain here. The big problem is we have a credibility gap right now. It's like a poison pill is thrown into any solution that comes through."

This demands courageous leadership, sadly lacking today. The commission cannot continue to kick this down the political road.

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