The need is now, and the money is here to help fill it. But Gov. Jeb Bush wants to put the money aside while poor Floridians go without health care.
Published January 8, 2004
A group of lawmakers is being asked today to make the cruelest of gestures toward Florida's poor and infirm. With the state already $113-million short in its programs to serve poor people who need doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, these lawmakers are being asked to shift nearly four times that amount into a reserve account. They are being asked, in the middle of a thunderstorm, to put money away for an umbrella
In this case, though, the poor get soaked.
Gov. Jeb Bush is the one who is urging this misallocation of resources, and his agency director assures lawmakers that "services to recipients will not be impacted by this change." Whom are they kidding? The state already has 63,000 poor children and 12,600 disabled adults on waiting lists to see doctors and therapists. It is also contemplating reductions in the meager compensation it provides to nursing homes, hospitals and group homes for taking care of poor people, even as new state laws require nursing homes to hire more staff to maintain quality.
Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein was direct in his assessment: "It's morally wrong. . . . These are real expenses right now that affect people's lives right now."
The governor says he is not being cruel, just prudent. But his call for financial discipline rings hollow, especially after he urged the Legislature in October to spend $369-million to bring a private biomedical research institute to Palm Beach County. The money he wants to save for later, $413-million, was part of a larger economic stimulus package the U.S. Congress adopted in May. The money was sent to states with the express intent that it be spent immediately to deal with the human suffering associated with cuts in Medicaid funding.
Bush ignores that congressional intent and argues the money can't be spent because it is "nonrecurring," a fact that won't change next year. What will change next year is that lawmakers will be seeking re-election and eager to spend windfalls. The Legislative Budget Commission, which is being urged today to bank the federal money, might want to know why it took the governor seven months to get around to asking.
At Bon Secours Maria Manor, a respected nursing home in St. Petersburg, this budgetary indifference could mean a loss of $120,000, and planning director Luanne Reese is understandably puzzled. As she puts it: "It's the contradiction in, "We want you to provide quality, but we're going to keep cutting the money for you to provide quality care.' "
Sometimes these kinds of budgetary cutbacks, as painful as they may be, are driven by dire economic times or unforeseen shortfalls. What makes this so callous is that Florida is pleading poverty to its poor while hiding cash under the mattress.