Originally created 04/21/00

Committee seeks ideas on funding



Augusta commissioners will look south -- and within -- for ideas about how to solve the longstanding problem of funding health care for the poor and uninsured.

In the first meeting of the indigent care subcommittee of the Finance Committee, chairman Jerry Brigham announced that the group would travel to Savannah on June 26 to look at its Westside Urban Health Center. That clinic serves the uninsured, Medicare and Medicaid patients for the community.

Mr. Brigham also said there may be a citizens' committee formed to get input from the public on funding indigent care and welcomed input from anyone.

"I want to involve this community in making the decision on what this community's level of indigent care is going to be," Mr. Brigham said. "Once we decide where it's going to be, I want us to decide how we're going to fund it. I know we can't continue to do what we've done in the past."

Augusta contracts with University Hospital to provide care for the certified indigent but caps those payments at a certain amount each year, which currently is $1.25 million. Setting that amount has led to protracted budget debates each year, a fracas all sides are hoping to avoid this year.

"We can do that better," said J. Larry Read, chief executive officer of University Health Care System. "We applaud this effort to sit down, roll up our sleeves and get on with it."

The subcommittee will hold hearings and hopes to make a recommendation to the Finance Committee before the budget process begins in August, Mr. Brigham said. The next meeting will be in 2-3 weeks but has not yet been set.

Committee members and Commissioners Lee Beard and Andy Cheek said it is not a problem confined to one area or one hospital.

"This is a problem that we all share," Mr. Cheek said. "It doesn't just involve the hospital and poor folks."

Savannah's clinic system has an advantage in that it has been designated a federally qualified health care center, which allows it to bill Medicare, University officials said. University has sought the same designation for its community clinics, but the downtown clinic has too many doctors nearby and there is not enough poverty in the area surrounding the south Augusta clinic, said Cindy Lunsford, vice president for community services.

Still, the meetings are an opportunity to think of a different way of approaching care for the poor, Mr. Read said.

"Maybe we can develop a whole new system," he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.