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Uncaring lot in Legislature would deny health plan for the poor

The Honorables, as members of the Florida Legislature are called by those who think they deserve respect, wouldn't know Marilyn Reed from a hole in the ground.

She is a 59-year-old diabetic without insurance who has to take eight medications a day.

As for Roxanne Greenwood, the Honorables wouldn't recognize her unless she had a billboard-sized nametag around her neck.

She is the manager of a Family Dollar store who can't afford her company's medical insurance, much less what a root canal costs. She has needed three.

The two women were at the Ruskin Health Center in southeastern Hillsborough County on Monday, waiting to see a doctor and largely ignorant of the battle over the program that gives them the chance to get better. If you worked 80 hours a week, Roxanne Greenwood said, you wouldn't have time to follow the news, either.

Mrs. Reed and Mrs. Greenwood don't qualify for Medicaid. They are insured through the Hillsborough Health Plan that uses some property taxes, but mostly a half-cent sales tax, to cover the costs. A family of four earning less than $15,600 a year can get health insurance.

The plan has kept thousands of people from going to emergency rooms, where fixing a sprained ankle can cost megabucks. The plan has won praise nationwide, has been hailed as progressive.

Progressive? Tampa? Could that be what dooms it?

The Legislature must extend the tax by next year, or it will expire. Representatives from Okaloosa County as well as from Tampa Bay will be deciding on the fate of Mrs. Reed and Mrs. Greenwood.

But the women at the Ruskin clinic are as irrelevant to this fight as white gloves at a boxing match.

Some of the Honorables want to amend the tax, some want to kill it. Most others are silent. Being associated with a tax is as good as catching a communicable disease in this universe.

The disease has spread to the County Commission, where member Joe Chillura didn't mind the health plan as long as he was a Democrat. Now that he has undergone a conversion to the Republican gospel, he wants a referendum. David Caton, the religious extremist who has been trying to take over the Tampa GOP, also opposes the tax. Health care is apparently not a family value.

One of the tax's more offending features apparently is its $130-million surplus. The money could be used to give health insurance to another 77,000 adults in Tampa who still lack it.

But instead Brandon state Sen. Tom Lee has complained that the program has been "a little too successful in raising money" _ which is another way of saying those managing the program have been a little too successful in not wasting it.

At the Ruskin Health Center on Monday, Dr. Dennis Penzell, the medical director, reminisced about his work prior to the tax. Then, the clinic only treated people for routine problems. If they had, say, cancer or asthma, he had to get on the phone and beg specialists to take them free of charge. Too many doctors refused. The tax has raised enough money so that 200 specialists formed a network to take, for less than what Medicaid would pay, the sickest of the people who pass through the center.

People get care. Doctors get paid. The program works.

And other people don't like it.

The contagious disease here appears to be resentment. Resentment is bound to make the Honorables act like anything but.

They've caught it from the voters they represent.

"People say, "These damn people are getting better health care than I am, and I pay for it,'

" said Brantz Roszel, the Ruskin clinic's finance officer.

It makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it? People in clothes from Goodwill and eating on food stamps are envied by others with cell phones and three-car garages because they get in sooner to see the surgeon.