1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott officially convenes commission on hospital spending

Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, on March 3 during his State of the State address. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, on March 3 during his State of the State address. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 6, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Wednesday could be an awkward day for Gov. Rick Scott, who is scheduled to meet with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to talk about renewing a $2.2 billion hospital funding program for Florida.

After all, he's suing her.

Burwell is named as the defendant in Scott's suit alleging that the Obama Administration is trying to coerce Florida into expanding Medicaid by ending the so-called Low Income Pool (LIP). The agency has not commented directly on the suit, but says Medicaid expansion is and has always been a "state decision."

Despite the legal tussle, Scott is optimistic about his trip to Washington.

"The reason I'm doing this is we've got to get a budget done," he said on his way to the airport Tuesday. "And it's hard to get a budget done not knowing exactly (the feds) decision."

Uncertainty over the future of the LIP program has paralyzed state lawmakers tasked with building the state budget. The program, which provides supplemental funding to safety-net hospitals and county health departments, is scheduled to end on June 30 — unless the federal government approves a proposed successor program. A special session will be held, but it's unclear when lawmakers will return to Tallahassee.

It is not clear what role Medicaid expansion will play in the decision.

Federal health officials have said Medicaid expansion and the continuation of the Low Income Pool are linked because they would cover some of the same people. But because of strong opposition from the Florida House, the Legislature is unlikely to accept federal Medicaid expansion money this year. The Senate is pushing for expansion and has proposed its own plan to do so.

Scott, a former hospital executive, opposes Medicaid expansion. In recent weeks, he has been trying to drive a parallel conversation on the issue of health care and hospital funding.

On Tuesday, Scott signed an executive order creating a new commission to explore the issue. In addition to investigating outcomes at taxpayer-supported hospitals, the working group will examine executive compensation and spending on lobbyists, advertising and political campaigns.

With Medicaid spending accounting for one-third of the state budget, Scott said the commission makes sense.

"We ought to know how those dollars are being spent," he said. "What's the outcome of those dollars? Are they being spent efficiently?"

The executive order did not specify how many members would be appointed to the commission, what kind of qualifications would be required, or when the group would begin meeting. It did, however, say that all members of the commission, its chair and its executive director would be appointed by the governor.

Scott said he planned to make appointments "promptly," adding that the information would be useful to lawmakers under pressure to pass a budget by June 30.

Democrats were quick to bring up the fact that he resigned his job as the CEO of a for-profit hospital chain in 1997 after federal agents went public with an investigation into the company. Columbia/HCA later agreed to pay a record $1.7 billion in government penalties and fines.

"Now, Rick Scott — who resigned from the health care company he founded amid federal fraud investigations — has decided his time would be well spent auditing the books of Florida hospitals," Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant said in a statement. "How does that help resolve the gridlock in the legislature? The only hospital management advice Rick Scott knows how to offer is training executives how to fleece the federal government for billions."

At least one person expressed an interest in participating: Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

"Almost $24 billion tax dollars are being spent each year on health care in the state of Florida, and I feel like the public deserves a very good accounting of where that money goes," Hays said Tuesday. "And I think this commission can play a very key role in clearing up some of the misconceptions that are out there, whether it be on the part of the hospitals thinking they deserve more funding or whether that be on the part of the public thinking there needs to be more money."

Scott convened a review of taxpayer-funded hospital districts in 2011.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at Follow @kmcgrory.