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Health care reform takes a beating in the Senate

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Wednesday was not the best of days for health care reform in the Florida Senate.

A measure to control hospital costs was jettisoned during a meeting of the Health and Rehabilitative Services Committee.

And in a series of baffling maneuvers, a much-touted bill that would create a Canadian-style health care system in Florida did pass _ but passing it in the HRS committee probably dooms it because now it goes to a committee believed to be hostile to it.

Partisan politics further complicated things, with Democratic committee chairwoman Eleanor Weinstock trying frantically to move major bills through the committee and onto their next assignment before time runs out for hearing bills. Republican members, however, tried to slow her down by urging that more time be taken on the bills.

Sandra Gentile, a Pinellas County woman who came to Tallahassee to tell how health costs had financially ruined her, found herself in the middle.

"This has been 4{ years of my life," Gentile said to senators who appeared to take little notice of her. "I don't think some people are listening."

Gentile came to support Weinstock's bill to create a global health fund to care for all Floridians.

Weinstock found herself trying to save her bill by keeping her committee from voting on it. Approving the bill would send it to the Commerce Committee, where its chances are not thought to be good.

In the Senate, once a bill has been defeated in committee, its sponsor cannot resurrect it by tacking it onto another bill. So Weinstock hoped a procedural move could save her bill's concepts for a later, friendlier forum.

But audience members from the Florida Health Care Campaign, who have been pushing for years for the health-care-for-all bill, insisted on a vote.

"This is the only bill in the Legislature that would really address health care cost containment," said Joe Martin of the AFL-CIO. "If they're truly interested, they have to keep it alive."

The vote was unanimous because Republican members who really oppose the measure said they voted for it to keep it alive for another day out of deference to the audience members "who have traveled so far," as state Sen. Bill Bankhead, R-Jacksonville, put it.

Bill supporters in the audience applauded, but the applause may not last. "Those poor people have just shot themselves in the foot," said state Sen. Jeanne Malchon, D-St. Petersburg, a bill supporter.

One of Malchon's own bills didn't even make it out of the HRS committee. It would have changed the way the Health Care Cost Containment Board calculates excessive hospital revenues, giving the board the teeth it lacks to control costs. Public hospitals opposed the bill, saying it could force them to pay huge fines. They say their gross revenues are deceptively large because so many of their bills are never paid.

Malchon maintained that her bill would save money for hospitals that provide a lot of care for the poor, and put a lid on profits for hospitals that don't. But an amendment sponsored by state Sens. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, and Carrie Meek, D-Miami, kept the excess revenue formula as it is.

Malchon did get approval for her bill that outlines steps for extending health care coverage to all Floridians by the end of 1994 through a combination of employer coverage and publicly financed coverage.

The program is supported by Gov. Lawton Chiles as an effective way to link cost containment with access to health care, but critics say it isn't strong enough to solve the crisis.