HUDSON — They tried.
But local officials' scramble to circumvent Gov. Rick Scott's veto last week of $1.25 million to run a community health clinic that would serve many of west Pasco's uninsured residents has failed.
"It's very disappointing that we won't be able to offer much-needed services at the shelter," said Kim Schuknecht, chief executive officer for Premier Community HealthCare Group. "It's the residents of that area that are hurt the most."
State Sen. Mike Fasano, Schuknecht and officials with Pasco County held a conference call Thursday morning with representatives of state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. The group discussed all the possible legal means to obtain the money, which had remained unspent after having been approved in a previous budget year. Had Scott not wielded his veto pen, the money would have carried over to the next budget year, which begins July 1.
"It was one glitch after another," Dan Johnson, the county's assistant administrator for public services, said of the discussions Thursday.
After the meeting, the locals crafted a plan to have the county's legislative delegation write a letter to Atwater asking that the money be released to the county, so it could distribute the money to Premier whenever the clinic was able to cut through all its required red tape.
In order for any money to be transferred, Premier would have to enter a contract with the county by Sept. 30, a deadline the clinic staff says it cannot meet.
"The law is very specific on that (deadline)," said Atwater's spokeswoman, Alexis Lambert.
Even if that were possible, Premier also has no financial commitment from any agency past that date, and so opening the clinic would be impractical, Johnson said.
"They don't want to open something they'd have to close on Sept. 30," he said.
By Thursday afternoon, lawmakers scrapped their letter-writing plan.
"The governor's unprecedented decision to veto the unexpended funds allocated to the county for the Premier clinic will hurt the people of Hudson and surrounding communities," said Fasano, who has been a vocal critic of Scott. "The people who most need the services of the planned community health center will be denied access to the care they require."
Five years in the works, the clinic was to have been located inside the regional hurricane shelter that bears Fasano's name on Denton Avenue.
Officials cut the ribbon at the hurricane shelter 18 months ago, but the clinic opening was delayed initially because Premier lost out on a federal grant. Later, a plan to offer dental services was scuttled because it meant seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency permission to modify the building to accommodate suction devices that remove excess water from patients' mouths.
After the setbacks, Premier had expected to offer medical services there this summer with the $1.25 million allocation in the current state budget. Scott's veto leaves the clinic with no operating dollars. Also, it faces having to eat $173,000 it already spent on computers, phones and equipment for the clinic or returning the equipment to the state because it was earmarked specifically for hurricane shelter use.
Meanwhile, the shelter, which houses some health department offices and is move-in ready, will sit largely vacant.
"With budgets at the state and federal level what they are, finding funding for this facility any time in the near future will be a major challenge," Schuknecht said.
Premier does offer medical and dental services in east Pasco. It also opened a clinic less than two years ago in New Port Richey behind Morton Plant North Bay Hospital, but the office is 10 miles from Hudson, a prohibitive distance for those lacking transportation.
It also is at full capacity and has no space to add pediatrics, dental or behavioral health services, Schuknecht said.
Though the clinic accepts all forms of insurance, about 70 percent of patients have none. Officials estimate the same or more for a Hudson location.
"We'll have to go back to the drawing board and start over," Schuknecht said.
Johnson said Premier, along with the Good Samaritan Clinic run mainly by volunteers, play a critical role in providing affordable health care in a county that remains mired in double-digit unemployment and where hundreds of school district employees recently lost their jobs.
"They minimize people going to the emergency rooms," he said.