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70 to seek goals for indigent health care

Three years ago, Pinellas County officials turned to a task force for answers on how to fix its strained indigent health care system, which was seeing costs go through the roof.

Next, they sought help from a $150,000 consultant.

Costs still soared, hospital emergency rooms continued to be swamped with uninsured patients, and the county lopped thousands of poor and "working poor" people off its health-care rolls to make ends meet.

Today, Pinellas County officials turn to a different group of people, this time volunteers, with the same question.

About 70 people, from hospital chairmen to anti-tax advocates, will sit down together for an all-day seminar at the Holiday Inn on Ulmerton Road near Largo as part of Pinellas' "Strategic Choices" process, aimed at finding a solution to the health-care dilemma.

The process is being guided by a book of the same name written by two IBM managers and a consultant who emphasize visioning, planning and rethinking community problems.

Today's seminar will cost taxpayers $1,300. That doesn't count the $25,000 contract the county has with IBM planners.

The seminar is not expected to produce immediate results or proposals. IBM consultant Jeffrey K. Cordes said the most important discussion today will focus on getting the 70 participants to reach a consensus on what the community wants and what it can afford.

The county's handling of the indigent health issue affects everyone in Pinellas, from those who rely on the county for a visit to the doctor to those who pay property taxes to support the system.

Under state law, Pinellas County must pay for health care if a patient has no other means. If costs continue to rise, studies show, the county could reach its property tax cap by the end of the decade.

Everyone involved hopes the latest effort meets with more success than the 1991-92 Medically Needy Task Force, which outlined a way to raise millions of dollars to pay for health care for the "working poor."

Its idea, however, was killed in August 1992 by county commissioners who refused to let voters decide whether to raise their property taxes to improve Pinellas' health care system.

Commissioners at the time said there wasn't enough evidence that the tax increase was needed. Critics of the move suggested that election year politics kept the tax increase off the ballot.

Sallie Parks, a county commissioner elected in 1992 who says she would have supported the referendum, said Tuesday that the latest round of health-care discussions is better designed to bear fruit and is not necessarily aimed at increasing taxes.

Not that more taxes are out of the question.

"That could happen," Parks said Tuesday at a Times editorial board meeting. "If it happens, so be it. (But) that is not the agenda of this meeting."

Parks and Evelyn Bethell, the county's director of social services, said they see today's session as much more than just another study to put on the shelf at the county courthouse.

"I don't look at this as a study," Bethell said. "This is community consensus."

Parks said: "I don't know of any other governmental entities that have tried to do this."