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Rick Scott's hospital commission comes to town amid tensions over health spending

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding comprises nine members, but only one of them is a doctor.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding comprises nine members, but only one of them is a doctor.
Published Jun. 17, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott's Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding may seem like just another toothless task force.

But the nine-member panel, which meets in Tampa today, has touched off tensions between the Republican governor and Florida's public and nonprofit hospitals.

Scott wants the commission to investigate how taxpayer-supported hospitals spend their money, especially when it comes to lobbyists, political campaigns and advertising.

"The governor wants to make sure any hospital that receives tax dollars uses them in the most efficient and transparent way possible," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Tuesday.

Some hospitals, however, consider it a not-so-subtle attack from the governor, who made his fortune running a for-profit hospital chain. They point out that they have been battling Scott over funding for hospitals like Tampa General Hospital and All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine in St. Petersburg that serve large numbers of poor and uninsured patients.

"This new commission has been given marching orders," said Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association. "In his executive order, (Scott) told them what he wanted them to study, and he hinted at what he wanted them to conclude."

Scott pitched the idea for the panel in late April, as state lawmakers planned for the end of a $2.2 billion federal-state program for charity care known as the Low Income Pool, or LIP.

He made it clear he opposed using state money to help the affected hospitals and created the commission partly to get more information on how they were using the funds.

The measure drew criticism from Scott's political opponents, who noted that he resigned as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain in 1997 after federal agents went public with an investigation into the company.

The panel's makeup has also been widely criticized. Only one of the nine appointees is a doctor: Gainesville microsurgeon Jason Rosenberg.

Records show that all nine had previous connections to Scott, either because they were donors or had been appointed to other boards or commissions. The chairman, southwest Florida home builder Carlos Beruff, contributed $75,000 to Scott's political committee and gave another $3,000 to his 2014 re-election campaign, according to state records. Beruff's company, Medallion Homes, gave $40,000 to the state GOP in 2014.

Beruff did not return calls from the Tampa Bay Times.

Schutz, the Scott spokeswoman, said the governor had intentionally selected people "with a variety of backgrounds, including vast experience in the private-sector, in our nation's military, and serving the state on boards and commissions."

But former state Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, said the members' ties to Scott — and their lack of health care expertise — undermine the panel's credibility.

"A commission like this needs to be bipartisan, it needs to have all interest groups represented, and it should have people other than Rick Scott appointees," she said.

Already, the commission and hospitals have tangled.

Last month, the panel asked for financial data — a request many hospitals found too burdensome. Dozens refused, instead directing the panel to information they had already filed with the state and federal governments.

The commission said it would continue pressing for information.

Today's meeting is the first stop on the commission's three-city "Spotlight Transparency Tour." Executives from Tampa General Hospital and Morton Plant Hospital are scheduled to give presentations, as is Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who wrote a book on transparency in health care.

Some say they welcome the conversation.

The conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity praised Scott for "advocating for additional transparency measures so that, before any more taxpayer money is allocated to fund hospital operations, we have a clear understanding of how these funds are being used."

But Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said the meeting was an inefficient use of time and money.

"While it is important to maintain good oversight over how health care funding is being spent, this exercise seems to be more focused on diverting attention from the real issue: addressing Florida's unacceptably high uninsured rate," she said.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.