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State effort to give TGH $6-million riles county

Commissioners say the bills' effect on indigent care hasn't been studied, and legislators haven't consulted them, anyway.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


TAMPA -- County commissioners reacted angrily Wednesday to efforts by state legislators to help Tampa General Hospital, saying lawmakers from their own delegation are bullying them into taking positions they have not fully investigated.

At issue are bills in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both would pull $6-million from the $106-million reserve fund of the county's indigent health care program and give it to TGH, which has lost $30-million since it was converted from a public hospital to a private one in 1997.

"I'm concerned," Commissioner Chris Hart said. "The type of legislation up there now is vindictive."

The bills would pull only $3-million from the reserve fund if the County Commission votes to reimplement a lien ordinance legislators authorized two years ago. That ordinance, which TGH gave up when it was privatized, would allow the hospital to file a claim against any insurance settlement former patients received after getting care they could not pay for at the time.

Commissioners have steadfastly refused to implement that ordinance, arguing that it is too broad and gives hospitals too much clout over poor patients.

As for pulling money from the reserve fund, some commissioners expressed concern Wednesday that they have not studied what impact that would have on the program.

The program is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that brings in about $35-million per year. In addition to the bills that would have the county pull money from the indigent health care reserve fund, the Senate was initially set to play a much harder brand of ball.

The Senate's budget calls for the state to block federal and state money Tampa General gets for treating a disproportionate number of poor patients if the county fails to give the hospital $6-million, or $3-million and lien authority. Commissioners themselves held up $22-million in disproportionate share funding late last year in a successful effort to force TGH to hand over financial records.

On Wednesday, commissioners were furious that the Senate would consider such a move.

"What they are doing is indefensible," Commissioner Ronda Storms said.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the disproportionate share provision of the budget is likely to be dropped. But he added that if it appears legislators are trying to force the county's hand, that's because they are.

"This is an issue that has been in crisis for some time now," Lee said. "Now, it's time for us to deal with the problem. We've heard nothing from the County Commission proposing any effort to help."

The commission did vote to meet today with the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority and a chamber of commerce task force set up to help the hospital. That same vote also called on Hillsborough County legislators to come to Tampa for an emergency meeting Friday or Saturday.

Commissioners Ben Wacksman and Jan Platt voted against the emergency meeting, saying it would be a waste of time given the acrimony between commissioners and legislators and the fact that pulling money from the reserve fund for TGH might not be such a bad idea after all.

"I don't think we want to be hasty on this," Platt said.

Other commissioners remained miffed about the Tallahassee tactics of their hometown legislators.

"Nobody has talked to us as a board on this particular issue," Commissioner Thomas Scott said.

"Don't make the decision for me," Storms said.

Told of the commissioners' pique, Lee said Hillsborough's legislators are simply determined to get funding for the hospital before this legislative session ends May 7.

"I'm not prepared to watch this hospital besieged by its underwriters on my watch," Lee said.


-- Times staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report. Wayne Washington can be reached at (813) 226-3387, or washington@sptimes.com.

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