1. Health

Florida to audit 31 hospitals amid concerns about health care costs

TALLAHASSEE — Amid statewide concern about the ballooning costs of Medicaid, state Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Elizabeth Dudek said Wednesday she had ordered audits for 31 hospitals that may be receiving more in Medicaid payments than is legally allowed.

The hospitals include Kindred Hospital Bay Area Tampa and Kindred Hospital Bay Area St. Petersburg.

"We want to help them," Dudek said. "We want (Medicaid) to be successful. But we can't if everyone is not doing everything they need to do to contain costs."

The move comes as the private health plans that serve Florida's Medicaid population seek a 12 percent rate increase. The plans say the boost is necessary to help offset prescription drug prices. But last month, Dudek said some insurers had been paying hospitals more than is allowed under state law, and asked all hospitals to certify that they were in compliance.

Those that failed to meet the Aug. 1 deadline are being audited, she said.

Kindred Healthcare, the Kentucky-based company that owns the Kindred hospitals, did not return calls for comment but told state officials in a letter sent after the deadline that they were in compliance with Medicaid rules.

Dudek made the announcement at a meeting of Gov. Rick Scott's Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding. The nine-member panel has been tasked with recommending ways to lower the cost of health care in Florida.

Medicaid is a particular concern. In addition to the rate increase requested by the private health plans, state economists predict growing enrollment would cost the state an additional $500 million in 2016-17.

Scott has said the latest estimate would be "impossible for the state to fulfill."

On Wednesday, Commission Chairman Carlos Beruff said it was too early to tell what kind of recommendations the panel would make. But the members' discussion on expanding ambulatory surgical centers hinted at the direction they might head.

Ambulatory surgical centers are licensed to perform planned, elective surgeries but cannot keep patients overnight.

This year, the Florida House passed legislation that would have let the centers keep patients for up to 24 hours, and created new recovery care centers to treat patients for up to 72 hours after surgery. But the bill met opposition from the hospital industry, and died in the Senate.

State Rep. Jason Brodeur, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told the panel he planned to propose the measure again.

The Sanford Republican said it would drive down costs by increasing the number of choices available to patients. He also held up data showing that the average colonoscopy performed at a Florida ambulatory surgical center cost less than half what it cost at a hospital.

"We've seen these (policies) work in other places," Brodeur said. "This is not cutting edge here. This is simply an opportunity for us to introduce more choice and access for patients."

In a statement issued after the meeting, Beruff said ambulatory surgical centers were "transforming the health care landscape in Florida."