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Health alliances worry Scott will block CDC grants

Dozens of health alliances around the state that are competing for big federal grants are worried that Gov. Rick Scott will block their chances of winning.

Their concern is over 75 Community Transformation Grants that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will award, worth a combined $100 million. The program is part of the federal health law that Florida is contesting in court, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Opposition to the Act by Scott and legislative leaders has already led Florida to turn down more than $50 million in health funds that were then redirected to other states. The biggest chunk – more than $35 million – was for a five-year grant to help patients in nursing homes get out of the institution and live more independently.

At least 50 groups around Florida submitted letters to CDC saying they intend to compete for the Community Transformation Grants, intended to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce chronic disease. Each winner would receive between $500,000 and $1.2 million per year over ten years.

Applications are due July 15. However, CDC has asked each applicant group to include a letter of support from the state's Department of Health. So far, the department has not sent any letters and isn’t saying yet whether it will.

In response to two days of questions from Health News Florida, DOH Press Secretary Jessica Hammonds wrote late Thursday in an e-mail: “We are supportive of community partnerships and private entities seeking funding directly, as it provides the best opportunity for each community to be able to meet their needs.”

It is not entirely clear what that means, but Hammonds said in a phone call that she could not elaborate. She said she hopes to be able to say more on Friday.

Florida Hospital, which is leading an effort in Orlando that includes 22 organizations, is among the would-be grant applicants that are worried. Maureen Kersmarki, director of government relations at the hospital, said the group asked DOH for the letter in early June.

“Some people have made phone calls up (to DOH in Tallahassee) and they've been told the people there are willing to write the letter. But they can't because they're waiting on permission from the governor,” she said.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions from Health News Florida.

It may still be worthwhile to apply for the grant even without a letter from DOH, said Elizabeth Rugg, executive director of the Suncoast Health Council.

“We'd have to try to figure out... 'Do we want to go ahead and submit it without a required piece? Is that a fatal flaw? Only the CDC could affirm that for sure,'” she said.

CDC spokeswoman Karen Hunter said she doesn't know yet how the agency will view applications from organizations that don't have a letter of support from their state.

Ken Peach, executive director at Health Council of East Central Florida, said that even if Florida groups’ applications are rejected, the thousands of hours spent on the project aren’t completely wasted.

“Even if nothing comes out of it,” he said, “we're gaining a lot by working with other people and creating these alliances.”

--Reporter Brittany Davis can be reached at 954-239-8968 or by e-mail. Editor Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.