In February, it will be nine years since Sarasota County was sued by hospitals seeking reimbursement for indigent care they’ve provided.
And there’s no end to the suit in sight.
In a nutshell, Venice Regional Bayfront Health, Doctors Hospital and Englewood Community Hospital are asking a judge to declare the county is required to pay them whether it wants to or not. The amount would be determined later because they are continuing to provide care.
The Sarasota Memorial Hospital board (SMH), which the other hospitals also sued, receives reimbursement from the county for such care and the applicable laws say they should as well, the other three hospitals allege.
If they prevail, each could be entitled to tens of millions of dollars that the county never budgeted for because prior to 2008 they never made a claim.
Proceedings in the case are now on hold again pending a Second District Court of Appeal (DCA) decision on whether the suit is barred by the sovereign immunity doctrine.
If sovereign immunity — the doctrine that the government is presumed to be immune from being sued — applies, then the hospitals can’t sue unless the immunity has been waived. It’s unclear why it took so long for this question to be argued.
Whatever the DCA decides, the losing parties will appeal to the Supreme Court. If the hospitals win, then there will be further proceedings in the trial court — perhaps even a trial, finally. One was scheduled for last month but was delayed by the appeal.
Given the pace at which the case has (barely) moved through the court system, its outcome is likely still a few years — and an untold amount of taxpayer dollars — away.
But however the case shakes out, it’s not going to resolve the underlying problem: 13% of Floridians have no health insurance, according to AmericasHealthRankings.org, ranking it 47th out of the 50 states.
The rate was 16% in Sarasota County in 2017, the latest year for which data were available, according to the Health Planning Council of Southwest Florida.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — remains under attack and Florida’s Legislature has so far declined to expand Medicaid, as 37 states have done.
The Medicaid threshold in Florida is just $6,825 for a family of three, according to the Medicaid Matters for Florida Coalition. Earn more than that and you don’t qualify. And individuals can’t receive benefits at all.
Both state and federal law require hospitals to evaluate and stabilize patients who come to their emergency room regardless of their ability to pay. Too often, though, that’s their first attempt to get help, meaning they’re sicker than if healthcare had been accessible earlier and taking care of them will cost more.
With 2020 being a major election year and polls showing healthcare is a major issue, it will be an opportunity to evaluate candidates on health policy.
Maybe expanding Medicaid isn’t the best solution. Maybe Obamacare needs to be strengthened, or an entirely new approach is needed.
But can we agree that money is better spent on taking care of people instead of on arguing for years about whose job it is?