Originally created 09/25/98

Ex-commissioner plans tax to pay for care of poor



University Hospital may have scored an early victory Thursday night in its campaign to raise public awareness -- and public financial support -- for caring for Augusta's poor at the hospital system.

University played host to a community meeting featuring health care expert Jim Ledbetter, executive director of the Georgia Health Policy Center, to talk about the growing burden of caring for the uninsured. Dr. Ledbetter estimated that Richmond County alone had 40,000 uninsured people, and while 67 percent of them work, most of them are poor.

Federal and state support for the poor and uninsured will continue to decline even as those numbers grow, Dr. Ledbetter said. That will only increase pressure on local communities to deal with the problem, he said.

Dr. Ledbetter also pointed out that while Bibb County (Macon) and Muscogee County (Columbus) provide $4.5 million to $6.5 million a year for indigent care, University got only $1.3 million to care for the certified indigent.

"I am not suggesting that local government, through taxation, is the only answer to this problem," said Don Bray, chief executive officer of University Health Care System. "I am suggesting it has to be part of it and it has to be a bigger part than it is today. With a large medically indigent population, the quality of life in Augusta is at risk. How can we hope to have strong economic growth if we do not have a strong, healthy community?"

University is scheduled to meet Monday with the Augusta Finance Committee to go over the cost of the program to the hospital, now estimated at $4.8 million for this year. And two of the Finance Committee members, Commissioners Henry Brigham and Lee Beard, pledged Thursday night to work with University on the indigent care funding, which was cut in half from $2.5 million the previous year.

"I think some of this funding can be restored," Mr. Beard said. "I don't know how much we can do. But I think we should look at it."

But another Finance Committee member, Commissioner Jerry Brigham, said the county was strapped and has little more to offer University. He also pointed out the other, higher-funding counties like Bibb have higher tax rates.

"We put in what we can afford to put into it," Jerry Brigham said. "We're going to live within our budget."

Other options might be a special sales tax, an option that was quickly proposed from the audience by Augusta mayoral candidate Moses Todd. Mr. Todd proposed taking a penny of the sales tax money -- which he said would be about $8 million -- and provide it to University, freeing up the hospital system to use its capital money for indigent care. He also suggested that Augusta require contractors to provide health insurance as a condition of getting city business.