Countywide universal health care study OK’d

The Board of Supervisors on Monday unanimously allocated $200,000 to begin a Blue Ribbon Committee study of whether universal health care could be made available to low-income county adults, as it already is for children.

The vote in Monday's budget hearings came despite an expected $14 million increase in the county subsidy required to maintain the San Mateo Medical Center, bringing it to $65 million, or 41.3 percent, of the county's general-fund budget. The medical center provides care for a large number of uninsured or underinsured county residents.

“We already have universal health care here today,” Board of Supervisors President Jerry Hill said. “The problem is that currently the county pays for it all, and that is not sustainable. We need to expand the pot, which could potentially produce substantial savings for the entire community, especially small-business owners who have been hardest hit.”

The call for a yearlong, multiagency study of better ways to organize the financing of county health services arose from a June 1 conference convened by the California Healthcare Foundation, bringing together the county Health Department, Health Plan of San Mateo, county Hospital Consortium, Peninsula and Sequoia health care districts, Kaiser Permanente and Peninsula Interfaith Action.</p>

All these medical stakeholders and others are expected to take part in the BlueRibbon Committee study, which would hire staff and consultants to produce detailed recommendations.

The Board of Supervisors on Wednesday also heard the 2006-07 budget presentation of the San Mateo Medical Center. After three years of a relatively flat deficit, hospital Director Nancy Steiger attributed the new $14 million shortfall primarily to a combination of increased demand for patient care by the uninsured working poor, along with revenue not keeping pace with rising costs for medicine, equipment, supplies, salaries and benefits.

Supervisor Adrienne Tissier and fellow board members praised Steiger for managing to hold down expenses as compared with nearby hospitals, and for even making some cost reductions from last year.

The county government's contribution to San Mateo Medical Center has grown by $26 million since 2001-02. If nothing happens to change the ongoing trend, the hospital and its associated medical facilities will consume more than 60 percent of the county budget by the year 2014.

Supervisor Rich Gordon also brought up the ballooning costs of needed repairs for the county-operated Burlingame Long-Term Care facility, which is housed in an aging leased building.

“That building will not be viable for another five years without expensive repair work,” Gordon said. “We need to determine the feasibility of moving these services into a new, county-owned building that would be less costly to maintain.”

Budget hearings will resume at 9:30 a.m. today and continue through Wednesday.

nfriedland@examiner.com

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