After a year of listening to McDuffie Regional Medical Center CEO Doug Keir beg for financial help from the county to cover the cost of those who can't pay for their own healthcare, McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton had a brainstorm.
McDuffie County government was already under tight budgetary constraints and couldn't bail the hospital out. But maybe if a penny for every dollar spent in the county went toward indigent care, the hospital's out-of-pocket costs would be covered.
Chairman Newton has since taken his idea for an indigent care Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to McDuffie County's state legislators. Currently SPLOST money can't be spent on indigent care, but the legislature could enact a bill that would allow counties to put a sales tax referendum on a future ballot.
"It just seemed like a time when the legislature would be willing to act to take care of a significant problem that we got that's state-wide," Chairman Newton said of the indigent care concern.
Mr. Keir said that he is in support of any idea that would bolster the funds shrinking medicade reimbursements have taken from MRMC and other rural hospitals across the state.
"Whatever we can do to further financial support for indigent care is a step in the right direction," he said.
One potential hitch is that Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue has already stated he won't support a tax increase. Chairman Newton said the indigent care SPLOST would be different, though.
"By signing this type of legislation, he would also not be imposing a tax increase; he'd just be giving us the ability to ask the voters if it's something they want to support," he said.
State Sen. Jim Whitehead said he didn't see a problem with discussing the possibility of bringing an indigent care SPLOST bill before the legislature.
"If there's going to be a tax burden on the people of McDuffie County or any county for that matter, I certainly would look at what Charlie's proposing because I know that Charlie is trying to do what's best for all the people of McDuffie County," Senator Whitehead said.
He also added that handing the matter over to the voters is the best way to approach the issue.
"The fact that he is wanting to take it to the people of McDuffie County, I am totally in agreement," Senator Whitehead said. "If we're going to talk about something that affects the taxpayers of any county, including McDuffie County, the way to handle that is to do it through some type of referendum, if that's possible."
Should Chairman Newton's proposal make it through the legislature and past the governor in this year's session, he hopes to put it on a ballot so that it could take effect in January of 2006. But selling it to the public would be the next challenge for officials.
"If the voters look at the hospital as certainly a piece of the economic development pie, I don't see how they could not support something like that," Mr. Keir said.