A national issue that would have helped Manatee County immensely with the cost of indigent health care -- the expansion of Medicaid -- is not a consideration by commissioners any longer. That's a mistake. Last week, the county commission declined to place support for this important federal proposal in Manatee's legislative agenda, delivered annually to Manatee's delegation of legislators in the form of a wish list.
Despite years of talk, the county still lacks a strategy on how to deal with the looming depletion of the fund that partially reimbursed hospitals and physicians for treating patients too poor to carry health insurance or pay out of pocket for care. Medicaid expansion would have helped tremendously.
Commissioner Betsy Benac echoed House Speaker Will Weatherford's primary point in opposition to this inclusion of the poor under the Affordable Care Act -- nobody knows the future costs.
We do know the current costs to our medical community, and they're expensive. Manatee County doctors and hospitals can ill afford to provide free treatment as the fund from the sale of then-publicly owned Manatee Memorial Hospital to private interests some three decades ago expires next year.
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Hospitals already write off a great deal of the expense, and physicians provide plenty of free and discounted care. Just in 2013, even with $12.8 million in trust funds, Manatee Healthcare Systems (both Manatee Memorial Hospital and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center) still wrote off $29 million in uncompensated care.
Other Florida counties expend tax dollars on indigent care while Manatee County has been blessed with a trust fund until now. The expiration of the so-called corpus has been anticipated for years yet the county commission dawdles.
Last summer's referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to indigent care failed with voters, leaving the county clueless about a solution.
Medicaid expansion under ACA promised to provide some relief here, but Florida's House, under the direction of Wesley Chapel Republican Weatherford, rejected state Senate approval.
We're paying the price in that our tax dollars are flowing to states that accepted expansion instead of returning to Florida. That's an expensive mistake.
The federal government stands ready to pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for three years, to the tune of $51 billion, and then decreasing the amount in annual incremental steps until reaching 90 percent in six years.
That would also translate into job growth in the health care industry.
Plus, about 850,000 Floridians would obtain health care coverage should Florida accept Medicaid expansion. ACA extends Medicaid eligibility to 133 percent of the federal poverty rate, or just under $32,000 for a family of four. These are our working neighbors, not the faceless and lazy.
Yet politics -- neither pragmatism nor a social conscious -- continues to drive the debate in the Sunshine state. And the majority of Manatee County commissioners fall right in line with an ideological stand that some other Republican-controlled states have rejected.
We cannot abandon the working poor and penniless and families struggling with food issues. Their health care issues -- usually lacking in preventive medicine and then developing into far more expensive emergency room treatment -- will not magically disappear should Manatee County fail to address this.
We challenge commissioners to come up with ideas -- and quit abdicating their responsibilities by pushing this on the medical community to come up with solutions.
Manatee has a vibrant health care system that must be nurtured for continued growth and success. We elect commissioners to perform that task in all industries, and they do well with economic development and tourism.
Now's the time to tackle health care. At a minimum, supporting Medicaid expansion would be a positive first step.