Manatee County commissioners did the responsible and right thing this week in approving $7.2 million in agreements with health care providers for medical services to uninsured and underinsured residents.
The alternative -- basically, nothing -- would have come at the expense of lost state and federal grants and a bottom-line disaster for hospitals, physicians and other health care services. The commission just beat the Sept. 30 deadline for approving funding that would be eligible for matching grants.
But in approving this funding -- mostly from the soon to be bankrupt health care trust fund -- commissioners put off once again the difficult decision on how to deal with indigent health care in the future.
As we have opined time and time again, Manatee County had been in a unique situation with the sale of the once-county owned Manatee Memorial Hospital. That 1984 sale to a private corporation created a so-called corpus trust fund for indigent care in the amount of $44 million. That money could not be sustained in investments as the great recession slashed interest rates to next to nothing.
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Taxpayers should embrace the well founded fact that economic development and job growth depend on our quality of life, the business atmosphere, educational opportunities for employees -- and the overall health of a community. Doctors leave places that fail to support health care, putting communities at a severe disadvantage of attracting a strong and vibrant medical society able to serve the people.
Manatee County was indeed blessed with a corpus that took the burden of indigent care off the back of taxpayers, be those property owners or sales tax payers. That's how other Florida counties pay for indigent care.
That corpus will soon be exhausted by this year's appropriation, which does not come close to recent reimbursements to health care providers. The $7.2 million funding includes some property tax money as the health care trust fund only holds $6.9 million. Even with that, Manatee Health Systems will absorb another multimillion loss as the county's safety net hospital, an annual predicament.
For the coming fiscal year, MHS -- comprised of Manatee Memorial Hospital and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center -- will receive $4.7 million in reimbursements for indigent care, down considerably from this year's $6.9 million. Even that larger 2013 figure did not cover the hospital system's $11 million in costs -- and most importantly, those are at Medicare rates, the federal government's low-cost version of expenses.
As we've opined, Florida law on indigent health care -- codified in statutes section 154.331 -- allow counties to establish health care districts and raise taxes to address the high cost of indigent care in emergency rooms.
Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino observed at Tuesday's commission meeting that "We only have certain options to do in the future, and some of them aren't pretty: raise taxes, ask for another sales tax that would be voted in by taxpayers, take it from other places in the budget ... borrow it or don't fund it."
Those last two options are entirely unacceptable. Debt only costs more in the long run. And county commissioners cannot abandon the idea of reimbursing the medical community for the treatment of nonpaying and uninsured patients. That would be reckless and irresponsible, as we've stated.
Commissioners must come up with a new strategy. The county's half-cent sales tax proposal to cover indigent care failed at the ballot box last summer. This could be revived, with a much stronger sales pitch from the county, or another idea could be proposed. The commission has one year to lay out a plan, and the clock is ticking.