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Group urges health-care tax for county

The medical care for roughly one in 10 Pinellas County residents is inadequate, and taxpayers should shoulder the burden to improve conditions, a task force reported Tuesday. As such, property tax rates should increase by one-third mill next year, according to the Task Force for the Medically Needy. And taxpayers should be asked in a referendum to support an independent health care district financed by an additional mill increase in property tax, the group says.

A mill is equivalent to $1 for each $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt real property. For the owner of a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the total proposed property tax increase _ 1.33 mills _ would be $66.50 a year.

Creation of the special health care district, which would include the entire county, is necessary to guarantee a long-term source of money. It also would relieve the county of paying for these services within its required 10-mill cap.

The task force, which includes members from government, business, industry, medicine, education and social service agencies, made its presentation to the County Commission after spending eight months studying the way Pinellas provides services to the medically needy.

"What is going to happen if nothing is done?" asked Dr. William E. Hale, medical director of the Florida Geriatric Research Program in Dunedin and a task force member. "It's just going to get worse and worse and worse and end up more difficult. We almost have no other options than to take this route."

The medically needy are underinsured or uninsured and cannot pay for medical care. Seventy-five percent are employed or dependents of the employed; one third are children.

In Pinellas 65,000 to 102,000, or between 7 percent and 11 percent, are medically needy, the task force estimates.

The bill to provide services to these people could cost Pinellas County $57-million a year, the task force reported. Next year alone, the task force says $10-million is needed from the county budget to provide medical services for the needy. If that money isn't provided the medically needed will largely continue to do without.

Task force members were concerned mostly with those county residents who now do not qualify for government assistance but cannot afford the costs of health care on their own. The goal of the task force was to find a way to provide a safety net for such people.

Hale called the group "the vast middle category between those who can provide on their own and those who are down and out."

County administrator Fred Marquis agreed that a big problem are those who are employed but have inadequate insurance. "This is the group that falls through the gap, in essence," he said.

The task force recommended making more people eligible for hospital, physician, and primary care services. It also recommended providing such services to some people at a sliding scale, depending on the income and assets available to them.

Pinellas County is paying $17-million this year to subsidize the health care of indigents, $6-million of that in Medicaid reimbursements, Marquis said.

But even raising the county's tax rate to raise $10-million next year would not be nearly enough, task force officials said. To solve the problem, the task force looked at six different ways to generate revenue, said Roland S. Kennedy, chairman of Barnett Bank of Pinellas County and a task force member.

Creating a health care taxing district was considered the best method for raising the $30-million or more that will be needed each year, Kennedy said. But it would require the blessing of voters countywide at a referendum, always a risky proposition.

"Obviously, the biggest factor on the horizon at this point is whether it will sell," Hale said.

WHO:

The medically needy are underinsured or uninsured and can't pay for medical care.

Seventy-five percent are employed or dependents of the employed; one-third are children.

In Pinellas 65,000 to 102,000 _ or between 7 and 11 percent _ are medically needy.

WHAT:

A one-third mill property tax increase is being proposed to raise money for care, beginning in 1992.

Also, a referendum asking voters for another 1-mill tax increase is proposed for 1992.

Together, the proposals mean a homeowner with a $75,000 home and a $25,000 homestead exemption could pay $66.50 more in property taxes per year.

Source: Task Force for the Medically Needy

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