Crist budget, health agency merger draw fire
As members of the Governor's Office of Policy & Budget presented Gov Charlie Crist's proposed budget to legislative spending committees Thursday, plans for federal stimulus money and a recommended merger the state's lead health care agencies drew fire from committee leaders in both House and Senate.
Crist's budget includes a proposed merger of the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration, saying it would save money and increase efficiency.
But in a joint meeting of the House Health Care Appropriations Committee, the House Human Services Appropriations Committee and the House Healthy Seniors Appropriations Committee, Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House human services spending committee, expressed some hesitation about the proposal.
"I'm not sold on the whole idea," Zapata said. "But obviously I'm open to seeing more information."
Democratic representatives Yolly Roberson, of Miami, and Elaine Schwartz, of Hollywood, also questioned whether the plan would really save money.
In the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, three of the five committee members -- including chairman Sen. Durrell Peaden, R-Crestview, and vice chairwoman Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston -- said they were skeptical of the merger.
Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said he was worried the proposed joint health agency would turn out like the now-defunct Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services -- the problem-plagued social service agency that was split into AHCA and the Department of Children and Families in 1996.
"It's a little like East and West Germany," Gaetz said. "I wasn't really all that excited when they were together the first time."
Republicans and Democrats in both health spending committees also expressed frustration over a proposal to use money from the federal stimulus package to shift state money from health and human services departments to other parts of the budget.
Legislators worried about a plan to use stimulus money to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for physicians who specialize in dermatology, neurology, neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery.
In both chambers, lawmakers asked state budget analysts and agency heads what happens to the new rates when the stimulus money runs dry.
"I think there's a hope that the economy will turn around," said Dyke Snipes, Deputy Secretary for Medicaid. "Hopefully, if the economy recovers, you won't have as much of a whole to fill -- or maybe no whole to fill."
But legislators weren't sold on the wait-and-see-approach.
"We're all lighting candles for the economy," Gaetz told Snipes. "But let's talk about it as it is right now."