March 25, 2011- Republican governor Rick Scott's push to privatize Medicaid in Florida is highly controversial—not least because the health care business Scott handed over to his wife when he took office could reap a major profit if the legislation becomes law.
Scott and Florida Republicans are currently trying to enact a sweeping Medicaid reform bill that would give HMOs and other private health care companies unprecedented control over the government health care program for the poor. Among the companies that stand to benefit from the bill is Solantic, a chain of urgent-care clinics aimed at providing emergency services to walk-in customers. The Florida governor founded Solantic in 2001, only a few years after he resigned as the CEO of hospital giant Columbia/HCA amid a massive Medicare fraud scandal. In January, he transferred his $62 million stake in Solantic to his wife, Ann Scott, a homemaker involved in various charitable organizations.
Florida Democrats and independent legal experts say this handover hardly absolves Scott of a major conflict of interest. As part of a federally approved pilot program that began in 2005, certain Medicaid patients in Florida were allowed to start using their Medicaid dollars at private clinics like Solantic. The Medicaid bill that Scott is now pushing would expand the pilot privatization program to the entire state of Florida, offering Solantic a huge new business opportunity.
"This is a conflict of interest that raises a serious ethical issue," says Marc Rodwin, a medical ethics professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "The public should be thinking and worrying about this."
With Scott's blessing, the Florida statehouse is currently hammering out the final details of the Medicaid bill, with a vote expected in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, Scott has moved forward on another front that could also bring new business to Solantic. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order requiring random drug testing of many state employees and applicants for state jobs. He's also urged state legislators to pass a similar bill that would require drug testing of poor Floridians applying for welfare.
Among the services that Solantic offers: drug testing.
Scott's office dismiss ethics questions over the governor's Solantic ties without further elaboration. "The claims of a conflict of interest are incorrect and baseless," Brian Hughes, Scott's deputy communications director, responds in an email. When pressed by local reporters, Scott also glosses over the issue. "I believe in the principle that if you have more competition it will drive down the prices," Scott told the St. Petersburg Times last week when asked about his wife's shares in Solantic. "If you give more choices, it's better for the consumer also to help drive down price…and that's exactly what I'm going to do as governor."