TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court agreed to consider a case related to a 13-year-old law that requires Sarasota County to reimburse private hospitals in the county for care of those who cannot afford to pay for medical services.

“As we have argued in court, we think the law is unconstitutional,” Kim Savage, public information officer - media relations for the publicly owned Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, told the Florida Record.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear the arguments in the case on Oct. 5.

The state’s high court was asked to hear the case by Sarasota Doctors Hospital Inc., Englewood Community Hospital Inc. and the former Venice Regional Medical Center, which is now Venice Regional Bayfront Health. The three hospitals are owned by for-profit companies HCA Inc. and Community Health Systems.

In 2015, the 2nd District Court of Appeal deemed a portion of the law to be unconstitutional. Specifically, the appeals court ruled that the requirement that the county reimburse the hospitals constituted an improper “special law” that allowed specific private hospitals to be paid.

The Sarasota County hospitals sued the county in 2011 after the governmental body denied their request for reimbursement from county tax money for what was then roughly $200 million in care. A circuit court and the appeals court subsequently agreed that the private entities should not receive taxpayer dollars and deemed the law unconstitutional.

A circuit judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional and that private corporations were not entitled to taxpayer dollars, a ruling the appeals court upheld.

“(We) have been gratified that both the trial court and the appellate court agreed (with our argument),” Savage said.

The three private hospitals argued that the law was indeed constitutional, as the Sarasota Public Hospital District could also seek reimbursement under the statute. The hospitals also cited the public service they perform in caring for the county’s indigent citizens. However, the court maintained that Florida law and U.S. law require the private hospitals to provide at least basic emergency care, and that the private hospitals still “reap the financial benefits of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.”

“The claimed altruism may not be all that it appears to be,” appeals court Judge Edward LaRose said in the court’s 2015 ruling. LaRose was joined in the ruling by the other two judges on the panel selected for the case, Chris Altenbernd and Marva Crenshaw. 

The hospitals also argued that Sarasota Memorial has an advantage over the private entities because it has property taxing authority as part of its public status. However, county officials felt the courts made the proper decision.

“We were confident the circuit court decision would be upheld, and based on this new ruling, taxpayers can be relieved they will not be responsible to pay in excess of $200 million in damages sought by the plaintiffs,” Sarasota County said in a statement released following the appeals court ruling.

Savage said the controlling state law on the issue is actually part of the District Charter, making it a state law of local application.

“The provision dates back to 1954, and was merely recodified in 2003 when the Charter and all of its subsequent amendments were incorporated into a single document,” Savage said.

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