Florida Governor May Be Hospitals' Biggest Critic and Biggest Beneficiary

by | May 12, 2015

By John Kennedy

The same day Gov. Rick Scott created a health care commission to probe the bottom line at Florida hospitals, his political committee collected $100,000 in contributions from one of the state's biggest hospital chains.

The commission, whose members were appointed Monday, is slated to begin work this month and is tasked with a broad agenda, including reviewing whether health outcomes for patients on Medicaid are better or worse than for other patients.

It also is supposed to investigate how much taxpayer-funded hospitals spend on lobbyists and political donations.

But for this agenda item, Scott, a former hospital industry executive, shouldn't have to look far to find answers.

Scott's Let's Get to Work spending committee last week reported collecting $100,000 from HCA Florida West's Good Government Political Action Committee, whose HCA Healthcare is the world's largest for-profit hospital chain.

Leading to his re-election last fall, Scott also collected $50,000 in contributions from Tenet Hospitals, which run five health care facilities in Palm Beach County.

While Scott is targeting hospital lobbying ranks and contributions, Florida Republicans have been overwhelmingly the preferred recipients of donations from the industry.

"There's no intellectual consistency here," said Max Steele, a Florida Democratic Party spokesman. "The commission and Scott's focus on spending is clearly designed to put hospitals on the defensive. But Republicans are the ones getting the contributions, certainly more so than us."

The Florida Hospital Association, the industry's leading lobbying arm, has steered at least $147,000 to the Florida Republican Party, and $112,600 to the state's Democratic Party over the past two years.

Tens of thousands of dollars more went to political committees led by state lawmakers. Again, FHA has favored the Republican side, which controls state government and the Legislature.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has a political committee called the Treasure Coast Alliance which has raised more than $2 million over the past two years, including $35,000 from the Florida Hospital Association.

Negron said he supports the idea of Scott's health care commission, saying more information will help lawmakers. But he doesn't dispute hospitals donating to political campaigns.

"The health care sector ... is a major part of our economy," Negron said. "It's not surprising that they get involved in the political process. They have a right to participate."

The Committee of Safety Net Hospitals, which represents many of the state's urban hospitals with a heavy Medicaid caseload, gave $31,000 to the state GOP for last year's elections, and $3,000 to Scott.

Another $100,000 was scattered across political committees, mostly helping Republicans.

The Committee of Teaching Hospitals spent only $26,684 in contributions last year -- but $12,000 went to the Florida Republican Party, $3,000 to Scott, and the rest mostly to GOP legislators and committees.

Scott, though, is now at war with these same hospital associations.

They support a privatized form of Medicaid expansion proposed by the Florida Senate and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who earned $189,329 last year as vice-president of external affairs at Orlando Health, a not-for-profit hospital, financial disclosure records show.

Scott and the House, led by Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, oppose the measure.

Scott named nine Floridians to the health care commission Monday -- but only one, Gainesville microsurgeon Dr. Jason Rosenburg -- appears to have any direct experience in health care.

The panel will be chaired by Carlos Beruff, a builder and a member of the South Florida Water Management District.

Beruff has contributed $121,000 to Scott, his Let's Get to Work political committee and the Florida Republican Party, records show.

The commission is scheduled to hold its first meeting May 20 in Tallahassee.

In naming commissioners Monday, Scott bypassed recommendations from the Florida Hospital Association and Safety Net Hospital Alliance on who to appoint, while also ignoring two state senators who asked to be on the panel.

The clash between the state's Republican leaders led to the two-month legislative session ending earlier this month with no resolution on health care -- and no state budget for the year beginning July 1. Lawmakers will return for a special session June 1.

Asked last week if the $100,000 contribution by HCA Florida West's Good Government Political Action Committee is the kind of spending he wants tamped down, Scott demurred.

"We've got to look at how we spend your tax dollars," Scott told reporters. "I want to look at how the dollars are spent, are we getting a good return on those dollars, are patients getting good outcomes. Can we spend those dollars more efficiently?"

The governor also declined to expand on whether hospitals should be using dollars for politicking -- even those that flow to him.

"I'm going to focus on how the dollars work," Scott said.

The PAC giving to Scott represents Columbia/HCA Health Care Group, a descendant corporation of the hospital chain he once led.

Scott's role in that company is well known. He helped lead its rapid expansion in the 1990s before being ousted by its board in 1997. Three years later Columbia/HCA paid a record $1.7 billion fine for defrauding the federal government in Medicare and Medicaid billing.

(c)2015 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)