Under legislation that passed a key House Committee yesterday,

Florida hospitals would no longer be allowed to charge uninsured patients as much as five times what they charge paying patients and would be required to charge them lower rates tied to Medicare.

The House Health Care Committee voted 14-6 to require hospitals to offer discounts to people who have no insurance and whose incomes are at least 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

According to the bill, sponsored by Miami Republican Marcelo Llorente, Republican, hospitals would be allowed to charge uninsured patients no more than twice the rate they would charge if the patient were covered by Medicare (roll tape#1 o.q."Federal Poverty guidelines")

The measure requires hospitals to establish a policy for so-called ''self-pay'' patients, and inform them of their eligibility for the discount.

The House bill was amended in committee yesterday and has changed significantly since the Florida Hospital Association first embraced a similar idea in January. The hospital lobbying group was the first industry organization in the nation to propose legislation that would provide a discount of 30 percent to patients with family incomes of 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $55,000 a year for a family of four

But the FHA's Rich Rasmussen says the bill proposed in the House is now different from what the organization originally proposed in January (roll tape#2 o.q.hospitals can cover")

And The Hospital Association says the change could have unintended consequences, since a significant amount of the uninsured treated in ER's are pregnant women and children, who would not be covered by Medicare.(roll tape#3 o.q."florida's hospital offers")

But Representative Llorente Llorente said he decided to tie the discount to the Medicare rate to ''make it more meaningful'' for consumers.

The Florida Hospital Association has taken the lead on reducing the billing of services to the uninsured.....

Last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson scolded the American Hospital Association, telling them that hospitals could begin to slash prices they charge to uninsured patients without fear of government reprisals.

That followed a letter that the national organization has sent to Thompson in December, informing him that Federal Rules BLOCKED them from cutting prices for the nation's 44 million uninsured.

The Florida Hospital Association's Rich Rasmussen explains how his group came up with providing their discounts.(roll tape#4 o.q."discount proposal")

Left unsaid is the fact that this may now help Florida Hospitals collect payment for services that often have gone unpaid.

Miami Republican Marsello Llorente says his motivation for sponsoring the bill came from first hand experiences in the past year (roll tape#5 o.q."doing just that")

A similar bill has yet to be heard in the Senate.

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