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Florida Senate passes 'comprehensive' health plan


The Florida Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a wide-ranging plan that President Kathleen Passidomo and other supporters tout as a strategy to expand healthcare access as the state’s population continues to grow.

The plan, which is in two bills, includes trying to increase the number of doctors in the state, shifting patients away from emergency rooms, creating new facilities for women to have babies, and boosting health innovation efforts.

Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who has long worked on healthcare issues, called one of the bills (SB 7016) “probably the most comprehensive healthcare bill I have ever seen.”

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“It is changing the direction of health care,” Harrell said. “It’s going to make it more open and have more access for people. When we look at the population of Florida and the influx of people we have, we have to have providers out there.”

Passidomo, R-Naples, made the plan a priority for this year’s legislative session. House versions of the bills started moving forward last week, and the House and Senate ultimately will have to agree on a final version.

Among the differences has been projected costs. Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said an initial version of SB 7016 would have cost about $800 million. But the Senate trimmed about $70 million before passing the bill Thursday. The House version would cost about $580 million.

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“We don’t operate in a vacuum, and we have partners across the rotunda (in the House) who we have been talking to,” Burton said about the change Thursday.

The other Senate bill (SB 7018), sponsored by Harrell, would set up a revolving loan fund program for health innovation projects. That bill initially called for putting $75 million a year into the fund, but a change Thursday dropped the amount to $50 million.

Passidomo has focused on shortages of doctors and other types of health providers in the state. The plan, for example, would try to increase the number of doctors by expanding medical residency programs, which receive state money.

“It makes no sense to graduate people from medical school and not have residency programs for them here in Florida and then they go to another state,” Passidomo told reporters Thursday. “It doesn’t make sense because when they move to another state and they put down roots, they stay there.”

RELATED:Florida sees huge increase in Obamacare recipients as end of enrollment approaches

Passidomo and other supporters of the plan also have pointed to a need to shift patients away from hospital emergency rooms for non-emergency conditions. The plan includes requiring hospitals to take steps to divert patients such as by creating a “collaborative partnership” with federally qualified health centers or other primary-care providers.

The plan also includes allowing “advanced birth centers” that could provide cesarean-section deliveries for women who have what are considered low-risk pregnancies. Birth centers already exist but are not allowed to provide cesarean sections, which are surgical procedures done in hospitals.

That part of the plan drew questions Thursday, with Democrats raising concerns about safety precautions at the advanced birth centers and whether they would operate in rural areas that lack health-care providers.

“At the end of the day, for me, the birthing center looks like a boutique,” Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said. “It looks like someone is choosing to have this specialized service. … And if rural care and rural access is where we’re going, my feeling is that’s where we should have these places situated first.”

Burton said decisions about advanced birth centers will be “market-driven” and said the plan includes measures to ensure the safety of patients. For example, the centers would be required to have agreements with hospitals to transfer patients if they need emergency care.

“Safety, I think, is on all of our minds regarding these potential new locations for moms to give birth,” Burton said. “And AHCA (the state Agency for Health Care Administration) is given the authority moving forward to advance safety, to ensure that there are safety regulations wrapped around what could be, I think, very important alternatives for moms here in the state of Florida.”

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida