ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County is planning to increase funding to two local hospital chains to resolve a dispute that has delayed medical treatment for hundreds of the county’s poorest residents.
The county spends about $3 million per year for local hospitals, including Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and BayCare Health System, to treat poor and uninsured residents enrolled in the county’s health plan.
This fiscal year, officials slashed Bayfront’s funding from $1.1 million to only $360,000, saying reports showed it was treating fewer patients than in past years. Most of that money went to BayCare, which saw its share of funding jump from $1.7 million to $2.6 million.
Bayfront officials disputed the numbers leading to contract negotiations with the county to stall. That has meant hundreds of residents being put on a waiting list for noncritical treatment. The drop in the number of patients being seen by the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecological residency programs also has put accreditation at risk, hospital leaders said.
Now, county commissioners have agreed tentatively to restore funding to Bayfront after county officials admitted they underestimated the number of patients the hospital treated. It also will give an extra $368,000 to BayCare from savings made through the county’s pharmacy program.
The mix-up about patient numbers was because the county only counted patients referred from its healthcare program, but omitted residents who sought treatment without a referral, said Lynda Leedy, deputy director of the county’s health and human services
“They have seen a lot more of our clients than we are aware of,” Leedy said.
About 10,000 people are enrolled in the county’s healthcare plan, which caters to citizens and legal residents whose income is at or below the federal poverty level and who do not qualify for Medicaid, Medicare or disability benefits.
Local hospitals have provided treatment to those residents for about a decade even though the money they receive from the county covers only a fraction of the cost of treatment. One benefit is that fewer uninsured patients arrive at expensive emergency rooms seeking treatment for routine medical issues.
Bayfront, which recently has switched from being a nonprofit to being owned by Community Health Systems, said it is committed to continuing the program, but could not continue without some extra funding.
“We could not accept $360,000 as a fair allocation,” Bayfront CEO Kathryn Gillette said.
The number of county residents treated in 2013 by BayCare, which provides service at four of its local hospitals, went up by 12 percent from the previous year, according to Glen Waters, president of hospitals for BayCare.
The hospital provided treatment worth $15 million for which it was reimbursed only $1.7 million.
“That’s the challenge,” Waters said. “You can see the reimbursement doesn’t come close to covering the cost.”
The agreement to restore funding, which commissioners will consider formally next week, will cover only the rest of the 2014 financial year, which ends Sept. 30.
Before then, the county and the hospitals again will negotiate on how to divvy up the limited funding, which is not expected to be increased for 2015.
“The board really wants everyone to come to the table and work together to deliver the best possible care understanding that we have limited resources,” Leedy said. “There is no way we could cover all the costs — this is all we’ve got.”