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Jacksonville Lawmakers To Send Letter Of Support For UF Health Jacksonville

Jessica Palombo

The UF Health Jacksonville hospital is too important to lose. That’s the message state lawmakers representing Duval County are planning to send to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leadership in a letter next week.

The Duval delegation resolved to write the letter at their meeting in Jacksonville Wednesday after hearing from the public, including hospital executives and a hospital association president.

The discussion will be fresh in their minds when they return to Tallahassee next week to wrestle with a state budget that has a more than $1 billion hole left by the loss of federal money for uninsured patient care called the low-income pool, or LIP. After much wrangling, the feds recently agreed to continue funding Florida’s LIP at about half the rate it’s been getting.

Depending on how the Legislature votes, the UF Health Jacksonville hospital, formerly known as Shands, could close. At the meeting, Denise Hunt told lawmakers her son owes his life to the hospital after being hit by a car.

“My son, who has Down syndrome—I want to tell this story—he was hit on Main Street,” Hunt said. “He was suffering from a traumatic brain injury. He should have been dead. Shands hospital saved my son’s life because they have meticulous care, they have the best doctors and they have people who really care.”

UF Health Jacksonville CEO Russ Armistead told lawmakers the hospital would benefit most from a mixture of state, federal and local funding. Right now it receives about $95 million in federal LIP funds and $26 million per year from the county.

Armistead says he’d like the Legislature to authorize Duval County to ask residents if they would approve a special taxing district. That way, he says, a local sales tax could replace the county’s annual appropriation to the hospital. But that could be a long shot, considering it requires approval from the Legislature, City Council, mayor and Jacksonville residents. And Mayor-elect Lenny Curry said several times during his campaign he doesn’t support new taxes.

Curry attended the meeting Wednesday and spoke briefly, saying he wants to be “part of the solution” to the hospital’s woes.

That solution should look similar to what the Florida Senate is proposing, says Baptist Health CEO Hugh Greene. He told lawmakers, as CEO of Jacksonville’s largest private employer, he advocates expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to fill the billion-dollar gap that’s only expected to widen as the federal government phases out LIP altogether. But the Florida House leadership and Gov. Scott have said they oppose the Senate plan, even after the Senate recently added a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.

Tony Carvahlo, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, says UF Health Jacksonville is one of the most efficiently run in the state. It serves a much higher-than-average percentage of uninsured patients, yet does not benefit from a local tax, as most other urban public hospitals do.

Lawmakers will iron out the budget in a special session starting Monday.