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Florida's top health official averages $3,600 monthly travel tab

TALLAHASSEE — Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros, Florida's top health official, has spent nearly $130,000 on taxpayer-funded travel in her first three years on the job and has spent at least a third of her weekends in her hometown of Miami.

The state surgeon general's travel pattern has not changed despite a belt-tightening edict a year ago from Gov. Charlie Crist's office and recent scrutiny of state travel by agency heads.

Viamonte Ros said her trips to South Florida took her to an important hub that allows her to reach Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward and Collier counties and the Keys.

"If I did stay over a weekend, it was always at my own home and no expense at all to the state, and I was always back immediately first thing in the morning on Monday," Viamonte Ros said.

To be sure, all trips included official speaking events or meetings. Viamonte Ros reimbursed the state when she used her rental car on off days. Staying at her Coral Gables condo saved money on hotels.

But the trips at taxpayers' expense allowed the surgeon general to spend time at home on most holidays and many weekends.

Viamonte Ros is the third Crist administration official whose travel reflects a pattern of trips between Tallahassee and their hometowns, with weekend stays at home subsidized by taxpayers.

In late January, Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman reimbursed the state $25,630 for his travel to St. Petersburg, where his wife and children live and where he preaches at a Baptist church.

Douglas Beach, the head of the Department of Elder Affairs, has also spent nearly $70,000 on travel. That includes more than 80 trips where he spent some time in the Orlando area, near his Winter Park home.

The surgeon general's $3,600 average monthly travel tab far exceeds those of Peterman ($1,800) and Beach ($2,100). Her agency also has the second-largest number of state employees.

Viamonte Ros, 53, makes $120,000 a year and oversees a $2.9 billion budget and 17,000 employees at the Department of Health. She is the first woman or Cuban-American to lead the Health Department and the first person to hold the title of state surgeon general.

She has deep ties to South Florida and has been very visible in Miami, attending a March of Dimes event and a back-to-school event with local lawmakers. She visited Miami Children's Hospital and various pain clinics in Fort Lauderdale.

She also has been a commencement speaker at Nova Southeastern University and made multiple appearances at the University of Miami, her alma mater. She spoke at Florida International University on April 13, just days before the university began a search for a new president. Viamonte Ros was a candidate for that job.

Viamonte Ros, whose family fled Cuba in 1960, earned a medical degree in 1983 at the University of Miami and completed two years of residency training in radiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

Before she was appointed by Crist in January 2007, she oversaw clinical operations at Miami-based Armor Correctional Health Services.

This is not the first time Viamonte Ros has been questioned about her travel. A February 2008 article in the Palm Beach Post noted that she flew to Miami at taxpayer expense 22 times up to that date.

Viamonte Ros said she does not create official events on a Friday to justify a state-paid trip home to Miami. Instead, trips are scheduled based on invitations. When she receives an invitation, the need for outreach and communication is weighed against the cost of the trip, she said.

"As you can imagine, I do decline a great number of them," she said. "We're very, very prudent."

The surgeon general has received many weekend invitations to Miami. Records show that taxpayers spent more than $30,000 on 55 weekend trips to South Florida.

Records also show that most invitations to Orlando — her second most-visited city — were for shorter stays and took place in the middle of the week.

Recently, Viamonte Ros has traveled to raise awareness about preventing swine flu and other communicable diseases, as well as to help refugees who fled the January earthquake in Haiti.

Much of her early travel expenses went toward visiting each of Florida's 67 county health departments to promote healthier habits.

She visited the Pinellas County health unit in November 2007. A spokeswoman for the agency, Maggie Hall, called Viamonte Ros "a great advocate for public health in Florida, but since she does not directly oversee us, we have had limited dealings with her."

She has visited the Miami-Dade Health Department, the state's largest, at least four times, records show. She meets with staff members and also speaks at events, spokeswoman Olga Connor said.

"It helps us get the word out and helps to build stronger alliances," Connor said. "I believe agency heads should go out into the community."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at sbousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

.Fast facts

Viamonte Ros' recent weekend trips home

• Flies into Miami on Feb. 20 — a Friday — and takes the next two days off. The following Monday, she attends several pain clinics in Fort Lauderdale and then flies back to Tallahassee. Cost: $444.60.

• After a series of news conferences with Gov. Crist, she arrives in Miami on Aug. 14, a Friday. She attends a back-to-school event the next morning and flies back to Tallahassee on Monday morning. Cost: $560.32.

• She flies into West Palm Beach on Sept. 3, a Thursday, and tours the A.G. Holley State Hospital the next day. She returns to Tallahassee on Tuesday following the extended Labor Day weekend. Total flight cost: $599.20.

• Flies from Orlando to Miami on Sept. 16, a Wednesday. The next day, she speaks at an NAACP health summit, then attends a meeting at the University of Miami. She returns to Tallahassee on Sunday evening. Total cost: $884.63.

Source: Department of Health travel records

Florida's top health official averages $3,600 monthly travel tab 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 11:22pm]
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