CLEARWATER — As patients streamed into the Clearwater Free Clinic with a range of medical concerns Tuesday, clinic administrators were contemplating an altogether different problem: the sudden appearance of a $100,000 hole in their $950,000 operating budget.
Cutting staff is not an option, executive director Jeannie Shapiro said. Neither is cutting programs.
"We're going to have to find (more) funding," Shapiro said.
Clinics like the one in Clearwater are reeling this week after Gov. Rick Scott unexpectedly vetoed $9.5 million for the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics from the state budget. The money would have been distributed to the state's 100 clinics in the form of grants.
Some observers decried the veto as yet another blow to uninsured Floridians, whom the clinics serve.
Weeks earlier, Scott and House Republicans blocked efforts to use in $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid expansion money to offer health insurance coverage to more than 600,000 low-income Floridians.
"The governor refused to support the Senate's efforts to help the working poor in our state purchase private health insurance, yet vetoed nearly $10 million in funding for free and charitable clinics, again depriving these families of the chance for proactive primary care and pushing more and more Floridians without health insurance towards hospital emergency rooms when they are at their sickest and most vulnerable," Republican Senate President Andy Gardiner of Orlando said in a statement.
In a letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Scott said he had cut the money for the clinics because it could not be used directly for services. That's because government liability laws would have prevented the funding from being spent on physicians' and nurses' salaries. Thus, the line item was "not a statewide priority for improved cost, quality and access in health care," Scott said.
Scott spokesman John Tupps, said a separate line in the budget provides $28.5 million in grants to help county health departments, community health clinics and Federally Qualified Health Centers expand services for the uninsured.
But Mark Cruise, executive director of the free clinics association, called the governor's explanation for the veto misleading.
He said clinics could have used the dollars for support personnel, medical equipment and the prescription medication they provide to patients.
What's more, Cruise predicted that the $28.5 million in the budget would end up mostly with the county health departments, which are set to lose federal funding for charity care.
The veto had an immediate effect on local clinics.
At the close of business Tuesday, which marked the end of the state's fiscal year, the Good Samaritan Health Clinic of Pasco in New Port Richey said goodbye to its medical information manager and director of development.
"It's devastating," CEO Melissa Fahy said. "These positions were absolutely vital."
Free clinics are funded mostly by private donations and in-kind contributions from community partners. Last year was the first time lawmakers set aside money for the St. Petersburg-based Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics to distribute among the state's clinics. Scott approved the $4.5 million allocation when he signed the budget.
Records show a total of $617,500 went to clinics in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.
The Center for Family Health in Tampa received $30,000 — money that helped hire an administrative assistant, purchase two new air conditioners, and bring Internet access to the office, treasurer Jonathan Brill said.
The funding nearly doubled the clinic's revenue.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic's share of the money — about $98,000 — was enough to buy a portable dental X-ray machine, hire a new staff member and invest more than $20,000 in strategic planning, executive director Beth Houghton said.
The grant program was so successful that lawmakers in the state House and Senate had agreed to increase the funding to $9.5 million for 2015-16. Republicans and Democrats were on board.
The news prompted a celebration at Clearwater Free Clinic, which was expecting to receive at least $100,000.
The veto, which came less than a week later, was painful.
Crystal Beach resident Richard Tracy, 64, was among the patients at the clinic Tuesday.
Tracy, who works part time in an elementary school and doesn't have health insurance, said the clinic is the only place he can go for regular medical care.
"This place is great," he said after his checkup. "It's a mistake that (the governor) is cutting funding."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.