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Health Dept. critic wins power over health spending

By Jim Saunders
12/8/2010 © Health News Florida

State Rep. Matt Hudson has led a controversial effort to overhaul the Florida Department of Health. Now, he will help control the agency's purse strings --- and a whole lot more.

The Naples Republican was named Tuesday as chairman of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, making him a top player in deciding how the state will spend roughly $28 billion next year on health and human-services programs.

Hudson, 44, will have to deal with a growing Medicaid budget shortfall, which his Senate counterpart said Tuesday could force as much as $2 billion in state-funding cuts. At the same time, he will be involved as legislative leaders try to make major changes in the Medicaid program to rein in costs.

"We have got to get that (Medicaid reform) done if we're going to have a balanced and sustainable budget'' in the short and long term, Hudson said during an interview Tuesday in a makeshift office in the Capitol.

Public-health groups also will closely watch Hudson, as the Department of Health faces a March 1 deadline for submitting recommendations about overhauling the agency. The recommendations stem from a Hudson-led move during the 2010 legislative session to change --- and likely shrink --- the department.

As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, Hudson will have a large amount of leverage to make changes or cuts in the department. He will sign off on most, if not all, agency spending.

Hudson said he also wants to see Gov.-elect Rick Scott's ideas for changes at the department. But he reiterated his view from earlier this year that the agency needs to be more "laser-focused, mission-driven and outcome-based.''

The appointment came as House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, announced the names of more than 40 subcommittee leaders. Others included Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, as chairwoman of the Health & Human Services Access Subcommittee and Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, as chairman of the Health & Human Services Quality Subcommittee.

Earlier, Cannon appointed Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, as chairman of the Health & Human Services Committee, which is sort of an umbrella panel over the Harrell and Wood subcommittees.

Health-care issues likely will create some of the most-contentious debates of the 2011 session. Hudson's Senate counterpart, Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Tuesday that lawmakers are "not going to kick the can down the road another year'' on revamping Medicaid and also warned of stiff budget cuts.

“If you’re not feeding, housing or providing medical care to someone, we can’t afford to do what you’re doing,” he said.

Hudson, who joined the House in a 2007 special election, is a broker and vice president of operations for VIP Realty Group in Southwest Florida. Before going into real-estate, however, he worked for the Walgreens pharmacy chain for 20 years, including serving as a store general manager.

Both of his parents were pharmacists, and he said he "grew up literally'' in a drug store. "There were a lot of dinner-table conversations, just in general, about health care,'' Hudson said.

Hudson stirred controversy among public-health groups during the 2010 session when he spearheaded the effort --- backed by House leaders --- to make changes in the Department of Health. Hudson and others contended the agency had taken on too many duties and had diverted attention from its core missions, with one influential House member memorably describing the agency as a "dumping ground.''

It remains unclear what department officials will recommend in the March 1 report, but they will have to justify divisions and come up with ways to reduce and restructure the agency. Public-health groups have worried, in part, that the changes will reduce disease-prevention and education programs.

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