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Indigent-care director takes new position

The supervisor of Hillsborough County's indigent health care plan stepped down Friday after a year that has seen a program once hailed as a national model fall on dire financial straits.

Cretta Johnson, who had served as Hillsborough's director of Health and Social Services for six years, accepted a new temporary assignment in the county's office of public affairs. There she will assist the county in its lobbying efforts as the Legislature addresses budget shortfalls in the coming months that may affect how it provides health care for the poor.

"We just decided that maybe Cretta's skills could serve the county in a different capacity," said Kathy Harris, an assistant county administrator.

Johnson will begin in her new role Tuesday. As a department director, she oversaw all of the county's social service programs, with the decade-old indigent health program being the most high-profile.

An attempt to reach Johnson late Friday was not successful.

The decision came a day after a contentious Hillsborough Commission discussion of efforts to land a new third-party administrator for the health care plan. The health care program serves as a taxpayer-funded health maintenance organization of sorts for thousands of the county's poorest citizens.

In recent months, the county has faced criticism from health care providers that the current private administrator of the program, Ascendia Inc., has been slow to process claims. The county is now soliciting bids for a new administrator and prospective vendors have complained to commissioners over demands of the proposed contract.

Indeed, the new bidders may be asked to re-process as many as 400,000 claims handled through Ascendia, Harris told commissioners in a memorandum Friday.

It is not necessarily typical for commissioners to get involved in bid requests. But over the past year the commission has been grappling with a program _ backed primarily through sales tax dollars _ that was once so flush that legislators ordered them to spend reserves. Now the program is running at a more than $10-million annual deficit and is projected to deplete its savings by next year.

The county's Health Care Advisory Committee, a citizen panel, is reviewing the plan to recommend ways to make it solvent.

In the meantime, commissioners have been criticizing County Administrator Dan Kleman for failing to keep them abreast of developments.

"This is a program that has won national acclaim and awards and is being replicated across the country," said Deputy County Administrator Pat Bean. "It is our belief that it is time we make sure we are moving in a direction to ensure the continued success of the program."

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