Byline: CAREN BURMEISTER
The growing number of Beaches residents without health insurance helped cause $8 million worth of medical care that wasn't paid for at Baptist Medical Center-Beaches in the last year.
That figure, which includes charity care and bad debt from patients across the Beaches and Ponte Vedra Beach, has grown at least 12 percent a year in the last four years, said hospital Administrator Mark Slyter.
It also explains why community leaders are pushing for a full-time comprehensive Beaches medical clinic for the working poor and the homeless.
Members of Christ Church Ponte Vedra Beach are working with Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, Mission House, Baptist Medical Center-Beaches and other medical and social services advocates to develop the clinic.
The effort is in the early stages; the organizers are meeting and researching issues such as staffing, financing and fund-raising, legal and regulatory requirements and choosing a site.
They haven't chosen a model, but it could be similar to Volunteers in Medicine, a downtown Jacksonville center that provides free medical care for people who work but are uninsured, or We Care, a primary care clinic at Mission House in Jacksonville Beach that is part of a larger referral system for uninsured people.
"This is about the single working mother, the guy who works at the dry cleaner, the nail salons, the barber shops," said Michael Lanier, vice president of community health for Baptist Health, who has participated in some of the clinic meetings.
The Beaches hospital saw an increase in uncompensated care about four years ago that was a few percentage points above the increases at other Baptist Health hospitals in Northeast Florida, Slyter said.
He attributes that to a greater number of homeless people and working uninsured at the Beaches, whose medical bills often soar because they aren't seeing a primary care doctor and getting preventative care.
"They wait until they are so sick that they need to go to the hospital for emergency care," Slyter said. "As a result, these patients are coming in sicker and therefore more and more are requiring hospitalization, surgical and obstetrical care."
About 9 percent of patients discharged from Duval County hospitals in 2006 said they had no health insurance, according to a Jacksonville Community Council quality of life report. Statewide, that figure is 7.7 percent, the report said.
As a result, the hospital emergency room becomes the primary care center. Several years ago, Baptist Medical Center-Beaches created a fast-track system in the emergency room for patients with less serious health problems.
"Demands for those services are growing," Slyter said.
Under federal law, hospitals can't ask a patient if they have insurance until the patient's condition is assessed. Then they will be evaluated to see if they are financially eligible for government programs or hospital charity care.
"Anyone who walks in our emergency room will be seen," Lanier said.
Baptist Health, which has five hospitals including the one in Jacksonville Beach, provided $56 million in …