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Special to the Times

For all Floridians' sake, raise tax on cigarettes

We agree with the Florida Hospital Association's concern that Florida's budget shortfall will have dramatic impacts on the cost and quality of health care for everyone in our state. The recession is likely to require additional state budget cuts of about $4 billion next year, even after using federal stimulus money. Much of that loss will be felt by people who need medical care. Patients will pay more for basic care or find the care they need is not available to them.

Lawmakers do not have to accept these drastic cuts, because there is a commonsense way they can increase health care funding. Florida ranks close to last — 47th in the nation — in cigarette assessments. If the Florida Legislature raised the 34-cents-a-pack assessment on cigarettes by $1, our state would raise a projected $1 billion to help preserve health care for Floridians.

Many Florida lawmakers have said they fear the political cost of raising the price of cigarettes. However, public opinion polling shows that Floridians overwhelmingly support a dollar-a-pack increase — by 72 percent to 17 percent in one independent poll. The political cost of inaction — preserving the status quo of cheap cigarettes at the expense of health care for our people — will be much higher.

The direct impact of state budget cuts will be on Medicaid programs that serve the uninsured, children, pregnant mothers, unemployed Floridians, the disabled and the elderly. Everyone who needs medical treatment will likely see the impact in the coming years. Florida has an opportunity to protect the health care of 40,000 Floridians on the Medically Needy and Aged/Disabled programs by using tobacco revenues as a dedicated recurring funding source for the program. Without a dedicated recurring funding source, these vulnerable citizens are faced each year with the possibility of losing health care coverage. An increase in the tobacco user fee will do something that past legislatures and governors have been unsuccessful in achieving — securing the health security for thousands of Floridians.

Our state's health care providers will do everything they can to preserve quality health care for all patients. Deep budget cuts will likely mean that basic costs are passed on to those with private insurance. Unfortunately, even those with insurance will be hurt as they find their employers cutting back contributions or offering less coverage.

For example, hospitals are not paid the full cost of providing Medicaid services, and some are paid at only half the cost. When the state cuts rates for hospitals, fewer of the costs are covered. The losses are then passed on to employers and individuals in the form of increased policy fees and premiums.

Even with a dollar per pack increase, we would not come close to covering the costs of smoking in our state. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking-related health costs and productivity losses total $10.28 per pack sold. Businesses and families in Florida absorb more than $6.2 billion in tobacco-related costs, or more than $586 per household.

An extra dollar a pack would help close that gap, because in state after state it has been demonstrated that an increase would both raise more money for health care and decrease sales of cigarettes. It is not surprising that tobacco companies are fighting the increase with every tool at their disposal.

Despite these tough realities, many of Florida's elected leaders still stubbornly resist any discussion of raising assessments on cigarettes. They need to hear from Floridians about the terrible consequences of inaction. Giving up $1 billion in a time of dire need for our state's health care system is not the leadership we expect in times of crisis.

We thank the Florida Senate for its support of the surcharge on tobacco products to pay for smoking-related health care costs in Florida, and for directing surcharge revenue toward Medicaid programs. It is our hope the momentum gained in the Senate continues and moves through the House as well. The good health of our community depends on it.

The column writers

Larry Archbell, CEO,

University Community Hospital;

Sue G. Brody, president and CEO,

Bayfront Health System;

Gary Carnes, president and CEO,

All Children's Health System;

William S. Dalton, president,

CEO and director, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer

Center and Research Institute;

Don Evans, CEO,

Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital;

Larry Hanan, CEO,

University Community Hospital-Carrollwood;

Ron Hytoff, president and CEO,

Tampa General Hospital;

Stephen Klasko, senior vice president

for USF and dean of USF College of Medicine;

Isaac Mallah, president and CEO,

St. Joseph's-Baptist Health Care;

Debi Martoccio, CEO, UCH's Long Term Acute Care Hospital-Connerton;

Stephen R. Mason, president and CEO,

BayCare Health System;

Stuart L. Rogel, president and CEO,

Tampa Bay Partnership;

Brigitte Shaw, CEO, Pepin Heart Hospital and Dr. Kiran C. Patel Research Institute;

Norm Stein, CEO and president,

University Community Health;

William G. Ulbricht, president,

St. Anthony's Hospital;

Glenn Waters, president,

Morton Plant Mease Health Care

For all Floridians' sake, raise tax on cigarettes 04/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 12:42pm]

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