Dr. George Smith sees a patient at the Escambia Community Clinic. The clinic had to relocate after last April's flooding.
TALLAHASSEE — After a bruising political fight, a key senator said Tuesday that proposals about expanding health-care coverage for uninsured Floridians could be dead for years — and that lawmakers are now focused on "second tier" health issues.
"The idea of expanding access to care by providing health-insurance coverage to the uninsured is dead in Florida, certainly for three years, maybe for five years,'' Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former Senate president, told a health-care commission formed by Gov. Rick Scott. "And so now, the health-care debate is focused on a series of second tier issues that may or may not to a greater or lesser extent affect access, quality and cost of care."
Data from the U.S. Census shows that some 47,433 people in Escambia County as of 2013 didn't have health insurance — about 16 percent of the population. Access to health care improves not only an individual's quality of life, but also can help keep a lid on the rate of increase of services for everyone else.
Public health is a critical issue for the Pensacola metro area. Data from the Studer Community Institute's Community Dashboard shows that nearly 60 percent of people in the area are obese or overweight. That figure drains productivity and drives up health insurance costs for employers.
The Partnership for a Healthy Community estimates that smoking and obesity cost businesses in the two-county area $600 million a year.
Gaetz, a former hospital administrator and hospice-company executive, made the comments during the final meeting of Scott's Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding, which has met across the state during the past year.
It also came as Scott continues to harshly criticize the hospital industry for what he describes as "price gouging" and a lack of transparency. The commission approved a document Tuesday that largely echoed Scott's position on the transparency issue.
Gaetz, who was representing Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, at the meeting, said he supports efforts to increase price transparency, including a transparency bill filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. But he made clear that he thinks offering more information about costs will not solve the state's health-care problems.
"I believe that we will pass Sen. Bradley's bill. I sure hope so. I plan to vote for it,'' Gaetz said. "But Sen. Bradley knows that accurately and fairly reporting to a hungry man without money the true prices for all the items on the menu that he can't afford in the restaurant he can't get to doesn't mean he'll get to eat. Price transparency is good for its own reasons — and I sure support it — but posting a price list doesn't by itself reduce costs or provide access to care."
The Legislature was deeply divided last year over a Senate proposal to accept money under the federal Affordable Care Act to provide insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people. The House vehemently objected to the idea and, with backing from Scott, killed it.
Lawmakers this year are considering a wide range of proposals that address issues such as greater transparency and reducing health-care regulations. Among the issues are potentially reducing or eliminating what is known as the "certificate of need" regulatory process for new or expanded hospitals, easing a regulation about how long patients can stay at ambulatory-surgical centers and allowing new types of post-surgical centers known as "recovery care centers."
Gaetz is sponsoring or supporting some of the issues, which he said promote market principles and improvements in health-care access and quality.
But he said initial work by the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research indicates the proposals would do relatively little to help with health-care costs.
"Thus far, it appears that these proposals, including my own, may have some merit in expanding access or improving quality, but frankly only marginal effect on overall costs," Gaetz said.