MANATEE -- Manatee County's largest hospitals, Manatee Memorial Hospital and Blake Medical Center, were awarded contracts Tuesday to provide care for the county's indigent and uninsured population.
By a 5-1 vote, with Vanessa Baugh voting no and Larry Bustle absent, Manatee County commissioners agreed to take $3.525 million from county reserves to pay Manatee Healthcare System, which operates Manatee Memorial Hospital, to treat indigent patients through Sept. 30, 2016.
The contract represents a $1.2 million cut to Manatee Memorial.
Blake Medical Center was awarded a $500,000 contract, down from $670,000.
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The hospitals' most recent contracts expired Sept. 30.
"I'm glad the commission came up with a reasonable contract and we can partner with them to solve the indigent care issue we have in the county," said Kevin DiLallo, chief executive officer of Manatee Memorial Hospital. For more than two years, the county has been trying to come up with a plan to avoid taking money out of its reserves to pay for indigent healthcare. In the past, money set aside from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital was used to care for the needy, but that fund has dwindled.
By a 6-0 vote Tuesday, commissioners also agreed to pay $1.250 million annually for physicians, including specialists, clinics, urgent care centers and other health care providers that do not fit into one of those categories. That contract is up from $1 million last year.
The health care contracts did not receive any opposition during public comment.
The money used for the contracts will be taken from funds that are available for any authorized expenditure and will not affect the county's operating budget or credit rating, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker told commissioners.
Baugh voted no because she objected to taking money from reserves rather than establishing some type of new revenue stream for indigent care.
"Most of you know I am not going to support this," Baugh said. "The reason I am not going to support it is because where the funds are coming from."
Baugh said she supports the local hospitals, but also supports the taxpayers of Manatee County.
"What I can't support is taking the money from our reserves," Baugh said. "Hopefully, in this coming year, we will find a designated fund so that no longer do we have to go through these meetings and have these conversations. We will know, every year, in the future, where the money is coming from."
There is a provision in the contract for a one-year extension. Karen Windon, deputy county administrator, said there is money in the reserves to fund the contract extensions the following year, but that must again go before the board for a vote next year.
"I think you have to look at other examples in other counties," DiLallo said. "Counties have used sales tax, ad valorem or some combination of both to come up with a sustainable revenue that provides everything they need. Once we put that into place, we will never discuss the funding again."
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, while complimenting Baugh for her "bold" decision to vote no, said she was "crossing over" and voting yes for the contracts.
"I have come a long way in supporting the motion because we don't have a dedicated funding stream," DiSabatino said.
DiSabatino said the board has spent more than two years trying in vain to find a solution, but the overriding truth is that the county can't turn its back on its needy.
"We fund our children's programs, our animals, our parks and everything else and, unfortunately, we have a huge part of our population that needs our help at the moment," DiSabatino said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.