County Commission's Ultimatum to Gubernatorial Candidates: More Money for The Med ... or Else

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On the threshold of his own race for Congress in Tennessee’s 8th district, Shelby county commissioner George Flinn won the commission’s unanimous support Wednesday for a put-up or shut-up resolution demanding that candidates for governor this year commit to allocating more federal funds for The Med. Flinn described his resolution as “one of the more important items we will ever consider…an opportunity to show we’re mad as heck, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

The issue was that of federal funds disbursed to the State of Tennessee for uncompensated care administered at The Med to indigent patients. Traditionally, the lion’s share of these funds has been distributed at gubernatorial discretion throughout the state’s medical-care system, with only a remnant returning to The Med itself. Of $84 million generated by Med activity in the last fiscal cycle, only $34 million was routed back to the Memphis hospital.

The institution is now in financial crisis. The commission last week approved emergency add-on funding of $10 million, but additional funding is needed to keep The Med operating at full capacity — or even, as Commissioner Mike Ritz, a longtime supporter of fuller funding for The Med, has suggested, to keep it open. During discussion of Flinn’s resolution Wednesday in the commission’s Legislative Committee, Ritz warned that TennCare cuts indicated in Governor Phil Bredesen’s State-of-the-State address Monday night might force The Med’s closure.

“Tennessee makes money out of our uncompensated care, and they put it in TennCare,” Ritz said. “Interestingly enough, if The Med closes, TennCare’s in trouble.”

Despite personal pleas in Nashville last week by Ritz, interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford, and other county officials, the governor included no additional funds for The Med in his budget.

“We beg the governor to send us money,” Flinn said. “Right now, at this moment in history, we have a chance to say to the gubernatorial candidates how to allocate that money. After the election we don’t have a chance to influence the vote.” Although Flinn is a Republican and will be running for Congress in the GOP primary, he said that the intent of his resolution was to reward or penalize candidates for governor regardless of party label — depending on how they responded.

Commissioner Joyce Avery was of like mind, suggesting that letters go out to candidates on April 1, with answers expected back on May 1. “I want to know who I’m going to work for as governor. If they wont’ support the Med, I won’t support them.” When Ritz pointed out that April 1 was the filing deadline for state and federal elections, the resolution was amended to mandate the send-out date to April 1, with candidates’ responses expected on April 15.

Further discussion resulted in strengthening the language of the resolution to specify, at Flinn’s request, that all uncompensated-care funds generated by treatment at The Med be returned to the institution itself.

Before the final unanimous vote, two commissioners had expressed tentative reservations about the Flinn resolution. James Harvey wondered if the resolution wasn’t a “cart before the horse” matter that might injure relationships with elected officials. And Henri Brooks appeared to minimize the effect of the resolutions, calling it “a little pledge” and “a good little thing to do” but suggesting a visit to Washington to discuss the issue with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, head of a Homeland Security subcommittee, might be more fruitful.

“I do not appreciate this being seen as a little pledge — or a little anything,” Flinn responded heatedly, prompting Brooks to say she had not meant to “diminish or marginalize the content of the pledge.”

Wednesday’s committee vote will come before the commission’s full public meeting on Monday for final derermnation.

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