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Scott cashes in with health industry

By Jim Saunders
12/3/2010 © Health News Florida

As Rick Scott's campaign for governor gained momentum this year, optometrists started writing checks. So did nursing-home executives and hospital administrators.

The health-care mogul who spoke their language about limiting lawsuits and shedding government regulations had a shot at Florida's highest office. And parts of the health industry jumped on board.

Sure, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida gave big to help Scott's campaign, just like it usually does for major Republican candidates. Similarly, prominent health-care lobbyists ponied up --- mostly after Scott beat Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary.

But campaign-finance records show that groups of health professionals and doctors, not necessarily their big-name employers, also started helping the former Columbia/HCA hospital chief who was pouring millions of dollars of his own money into the campaign.

Take Health Management Associates, a Naples-based hospital chain. Its name doesn't show up as a contributor to Scott's campaign or to a related political committee. But a cross-check of campaign records and company websites shows that HMA executives, hospital administrators and family members chipped in at least $22,700 to Scott's campaign.

Alan Levine, an HMA senior vice president, said the company did not compel employees to donate to Scott's campaign. He said they were attracted to Scott, at least in part, because of the governor-elect's background running health-care businesses.

"I think there was a level of excitement that this was somebody running for governor who understands health care,'' said Levine, a former state Agency for Health Care Administration secretary who is leading Scott's health-and-human services transition team. Levine added that his role on the transition team is related to his lengthy health-care resume, not campaign contributions.

Scott, a political newcomer who beat Democrat Alex Sink in the general election, ran as a government outsider who would not cater to special interests. His transition office reiterated that theme when asked about whether large contributors will have additional access or influence in the new administration.

"While Gov.-elect Scott's background in health care and shared ideology with some industry members may have resulted in support of his campaign, Gov.-elect Scott has made it clear that he is not beholden to anyone or any group,'' the office said in an e-mail response to questions. "He is committed to doing the right thing for Florida and getting our economy back on track."

But even after the election, some health-care interests have continued to open their bank accounts to help fund Scott's inauguration ceremonies. Blue Cross and HMA, for instance, have each contributed $25,000 to the inauguration, while a nursing-home industry group, Council for Senior Floridians, has contributed $20,000.

Finance efforts for the inauguration are being co-chaired by lobbyist Brian Ballard and his wife, Kathryn. While Ballard has various types of clients, he also is known for representing hospitals, nursing homes and other health companies.

Scott drew widespread attention during the campaign because he spent more than $60 million of his personal fortune to sell himself to voters, largely through omnipresent television ads.

But he also tapped the health-care industry in Florida and nationally for contributions to his campaign and to the related political committee known as "Let's Get to Work.'' The committee was useful because it could accept donations that were far larger than the $500 limit on each contribution to his campaign fund.

Blue Cross and related companies, for example, contributed $303,000, with almost all of the money going to the Let's Get to Work committee, the records show.

Heavy involvement by Blue Cross should come as little surprise: The state's largest private health insurer also has been one of Florida's largest political donors for years, particularly to Republicans.

But other major Scott contributors, such as Automated HealthCare Solutions Inc., might not be so obvious. The South Florida company provides technology to doctors who dispense medications in their offices. Along with related firms, it donated a total of $297,500 to support Scott.

Automated HealthCare Solutions was not prominent in Tallahassee until earlier this year when lawmakers passed a bill --- later vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist --- that would have placed new limits on the costs of drugs that doctors dispense to workers-compensation patients. The company opposed the bill, while an outspoken supporter was Sink, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Spokesmen for Blue Cross and Automated HealthCare Solutions declined to discuss details of the companies' political contributions and instead issued generic statements.

"AHCS is a national health care software company based in Florida that is proud to be involved in the community and proud to support good candidates for office,'' Ryan Banfill, an Automated HealthCare Solutions spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The Blue Cross statement said, in part, that the insurer "believes it is important to promote effective public policy that enables an excellent, efficient health system which is affordable and delivers high quality care.''

In some parts of the health-care industry, money flowed into Scott's campaign and the Let's Get to Work committee from across the state. As an example, a Florida Optometric Association political committee contributed $100,000, while optometrists and local optometric groups pitched in at least $43,000 more --- in amounts as small as $25.

The Florida Optometric Association did not respond to a call seeking comment. But a top priority of the group is to pass legislation that would give optometrists power to provide more types of medication.

Optometrists, however, have run into stiff opposition on the medication issue from the Florida Medical Association --- another group that backed Scott, after supporting McCollum in the primary. The FMA's political action committee, by comparison, contributed $25,000 to the Let's Get to Work committee.

Another industry that piled up contributions from across the state was nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. A nursing-home political committee, Our Elders Count, contributed $35,000, but at least another $28,000 came from nursing homes and related businesses and individuals.

Nursing homes each year have huge issues in Tallahassee, including the amounts of money they receive to care for Medicaid beneficiaries. But Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, said industry members liked Scott because of his experience.

"Plain and simple, they felt his health care background and business background gave him a good understanding of long term care and all that is entailed in providing quality care to our residents,'' Knapp said in an e-mail.

It is extremely difficult to come up with a total amount of health-care industry contributions to Scott's campaign. That is because the state records often give only vague descriptions of contributors' employment or the nature of their businesses.

As an illustration, a cross-check of records showed that Scott received at least $5,000 from people linked to AvMed, a health insurer. But the records make no mention of AvMed and provide only job titles, such as "senior vp.''

Another wildcard in determining industry support for Scott is that his campaign received large amounts of money from the state Republican Party. Some of that money likely came from health-care companies, but it shows up as contributions to the party --- not to Scott.

Noticeably absent from Scott's campaign reports are direct contributions from many major insurance or hospital companies. But companies such as Humana, Aetna, WellCare, HCA and Tenet each donated tens of thousands of dollars to the party.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.