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Health program's reserves low

A county commissioner's proposal to keep the current sales tax puts the program at risk, an advisory board says.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

TAMPA -- County Commissioner Jim Norman's plan to slash millions in expected tax revenue would financially cripple Hillsborough's nationally lauded health plan for the poor, say members of the county's health care advisory board.

"It's going to gut it," said Dane W. Cutler, a financial consultant on the commission-appointed board. "You don't know the fear these people live in. Would you want to have no insurance and have kids?"

Cutler and other members of the advisory board spoke outside the County Commission chambers Wednesday morning, where the commission voted 4-3 to hold a public hearing Dec. 20 to examine Norman's proposal.

The proposal would keep the quarter-cent sales tax for indigent health care at its current level for another 21/2 years, rather than allowing it to jump automatically to a half-cent in February to replenish the program's reserve fund.

The program pays for regular medical checkups and emergency surgery for those who cannot afford private health insurance. Three years ago the program had a healthy reserve fund and the commission reduced the sales tax for indigent care from a half-cent to a quarter-cent, with the provision it would revert to a half-cent if the reserve fund diminished.

In November, officials announced that reserve funds had dropped well below targeted levels.

"I am in no way trying to eliminate this program," Norman told fellow commissioners Wednesday, arguing taxpayers deserved the reduction and that he would not let the reserve fund dip below $25-million.

Commissioner Pat Frank worried the proposal would send "a very bad message" to health care providers and create uncertainty about the program's fate.

"The more we start retreating from the amount of reserves we have, the more in jeopardy this program becomes," Frank said.

"This whole discussion saddens me," said Commissioner Jan Platt, arguing the health-care program has won more plaudits than any other program the county has undertaken. "Out of the blue this has come up, which is very curious and very sad."

Commissioner Thomas Scott said he worried the proposal would cause the program to stagnate and eventually chip its reserve funds to zero.

Commissioners Norman, Easterling, Hart and Storms voted for the public hearing on the proposal; Frank, Platt, and Scott voted no.

Letting the reserve fund drop to $25-million is not fiscally responsible, said James J. Waters, chairman of the management subcommittee of the county's health care advisory board. A more responsible figure would be $67-million, which the fund should have by September 2001 if the tax jumps to a half-cent.

Waters said the program, in the end, saved taxpayers money, since it provided preventive health care and kept people from the welfare rolls by keeping them healthy enough to work. Waters said preventing the tax jump could cost the program $23-million or $24-million this fiscal year.

"There are people at work because of this program," Waters said. "This program keeps our taxes down."

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