Florida Senate is ready to pass its healthcare plan

stethoscope on money
By merznatalia via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate is poised to pass a wide-ranging health care plan that includes trying to boost the number of doctors in the state, shift patients away from emergency rooms and seed innovation efforts.

The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Thursday unanimously passed two bills that make up the plan, setting the stage for the full Senate to vote as early as next week. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has made the issue one of her top priorities.

Passidomo and other supporters say parts of the plan will work together to help increase access to health care in the state. As an example, one of the bills (SB 7016) would take steps, including providing money, to expand medical residency programs to try to keep more new doctors in Florida.

“If we do not take steps now to grow our healthcare workforce, all Floridians — even those with great insurance and certainly those on Medicaid — will continue to face barriers to care,” Passidomo said Tuesday during remarks to open the annual legislative session. “My goal is to make sure our healthcare system is growing and innovating to better serve all Floridians.”

The bill, sponsored by Senate Health Policy Chair Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, also would take workforce-related steps such as trying to help clear the way for doctors from other countries to practice in Florida.

Totaling 234 pages before some changes were made Thursday, the bill deals with myriad issues and would cost about $800 million in state and federal money, Burton said.

Among other things, the bill includes trying to spur patients to receive treatment from facilities such as urgent-care centers and federally qualified health centers instead of emergency rooms if they do not have emergency conditions.

Under a change approved Thursday, hospitals, as part of their licensure, would have to submit plans for helping patients to “gain access to appropriate care settings when they either present at the emergency department with non-emergent health care needs or indicate … that they lack regular access to primary care.”

Burton described emergency rooms as the “most expensive real estate” for getting care.

The plan drew support from groups ranging from the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida and the Florida Dental Association to The Arc of Florida, which serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. It also drew unanimous backing from Democrats on the Republican-controlled committee.

But Democrats raised questions about issues such as part of Burton’s bill that would allow “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.

Burton said the bill includes safety requirements for the proposed advanced birth centers, such as requiring transfer agreements with hospitals in case patients need emergency care. She also said they would have to operate 24 hours a day and employ obstetricians and anesthesiologists as medical directors.

The other bill (SB 7018), sponsored by Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, would create a $75 million revolving loan fund to provide low-interest loans for health innovation efforts. The bill would set up a 15-member council to review loan applications and make recommendations to the Department of Health.

The House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee on Thursday approved a similar health-innovation measure (HB 1501), sponsored by Rep. Karen Gonzalez Pittman, R-Tampa.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has expressed support for Passidomo’s plan, which she has dubbed “Live Healthy.” The House Select Committee on Health Innovation is scheduled Friday to take up a 315-page bill (HB 1549) that is similar to Burton’s measure. That bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte.

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