It’s not very often that every chair of the state’s health care policy groups are in one place that’s not Tallahassee, but that happened this week at the University of Florida.
State Senators Aaron Bean and Gayle Harrell, state House Speaker Pro Tempore MaryLynn Magar and state Rep. Ray Rodrigues visited Gainesville on Monday night to discuss health care costs and access. Bean is chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. Harrell is chair of the Committee on Health Policy. Magar is chair of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. Rodrigues is the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Munching on chicken nuggets while sipping on lemonade, about 60 people at Pugh Hall listened to the officials answer questions about controversial health topics of importance to Floridians, ranging from mental health issues and telehealth to home health workers and an aging population.
UF Health Shands Chief Executive Ed Jimenez moderated the panel.
The event is the first of its kind at UF, said Matthew Jacobs, director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. It was developed by UF students Jared Young and Julia Canady based on their experiences as interns and through their work with the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council, a policy think tank.
“I started out and I sort of had the idea for this event because I interned for Senator Harrell and I knew her,” Young said. He’s a 20-year-old senior political science major at UF. “I respect her more than I can really say.”
Once he reached out to Harrell and Magar, he knew he had to reach out to the other two health care chairs.
“The big mission of the executive council is to get people in the same room that not only disagree with each other, but are on completely opposite sides of the issue, because we learn most from the people that we disagree with,” Canady said. She’s a 20-year-old agricultural communications junior at UF.
“In the state of Florida, health care is critical,” Canady said. “Being a human being, health care is something that you will always experience.
She said she is happy UF plays a role in bringing attention to issues that speak to “the health side of our humanity.”
Both UF students and community members from around the area were in attendance, as well as Bob Graham, the former Florida governor and U.S. Senator. State Supreme Court. Chief Justice Charles Canady and Jennifer Houghton Canady, a member of Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission member, were also welcomed as special guests. The Canadys are also Julia Canady’s parents.
“The legislature is into you,” Bean said, even if you are not up to date on political affairs.
According to the Commonwealth Fund, Florida’s health system ranks 44th overall for its performance in 2019. For access and affordability, the state ranked 47th.
“I’m always leery of anyone that gives me ranking,” Rodrigues said. He said it’s because each state might not be measured the same.
“I am leery of anyone who says we’re at the bottom of anything in this state,” he said.
Throughout the night, the chairs discussed their thoughts about how to best address issues within the health system that relate to an aging population and a state growing in population.
As a whole, the chairs said about one third of the state’s budget is accounted for by health care costs.
One of the most pressing issues for Florida health care was said to be costs, as well as its Medicaid budget.
“That is the largest budget item,” Harrell said. “Period, of anything the state does.”
Another point the panelists made was to look beyond costs toward quality care.
“Transparency and quality is very important to me,” Harrell said.
Earlier in the evening, Harrell also said the state needs to start addressing opioid abuse, substance abuse disorder and mental health.
“Many of the mass shootings that we’re seeing are driven by mental health,” Harrell said.
She said integrating mental health and physical health in the same location might be a way to address costs and improve Floridians’ quality of life.
“This is not easy,” Bean said of solving issues.
But, he said, the future of care comes down to transparency, competition and quality.
Magar said a continuing issue is the large costs of premiums, copays and deductibles.
Families “don’t know what it’s going to cost,” she said.
Another significant issue is aging citizens and their health care.
In Florida, 25% of citizens are seniors, Magar said.
And 65% of Florida’s nursing home population is on Medicaid, Harrell said.
“People want to be in their homes,” Magar said, rather than in nursing homes.
But home health workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the health system, she said.
“So if we were empowering some home health workers…with certifications and training…, we may see some of their job pay rising,” Magar said.
“Many times, we pay these people less than you would pay your babysitter,” Magar said.
When talking to people in the government, the panel urged the audience to “make it personal.”
“Tell us what a budget allocation would mean to your child,” Harrell said. Julia Canady said the Council plans to do focus its next panel on area homelessness, with the looming closure of Dignity Village and renewed funding for Grace Marketplace homeless services shelter.
“That is something I am personally very involved in,” she said. “It is going to be a crisis. Hopefully, not, but I am afraid it will be a crisis for the city of Gainesville and for people.”