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Suffolk health officials seek $7.5M in federal aid

Suffolk health officials Tuesday called for making changes to the county's network of nine health centers to bring in $7.5 million in new federal aid.

To qualify for federal money, the health centers will have to be under the control of an incorporated outside board where more than half the members will consist of patients.

The proposal was aired in a meeting of the county legislature's health committee, where lawmakers questioned how new federal health reforms might impact aid forecasts. They also asked whether the county would give budget powers to the patient-dominated board.

Health officials said the move is needed because county costs for running the health centers have escalated from $22.6 million in 2006 to $36.4 million last year. During that time, they added, the number of patients has grown from 258,000 visits a year to 310,000, and the net county cost per visit has climbed from $47 to $126.

Health officials said the initial step to becoming what they termed "federally qualified health centers" would be to qualify as a "look-alike," which would boost reimbursement rates totaling $7.5 million.

By fall, officials hope there will be new federal money so they can apply for permanent status. The county could then receive an extra $650,000 a year, as well as low-cost malpractice coverage for health center doctors and become eligible for other federal grants.

Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) said the county should be cautious in light of the sweeping federal health reforms now under way. "Our world could change with its passage," Horsley said.

Len Marchese, director of management, acknowledged "there are positives and negatives at this point" and its impact cannot be assessed until finalized.

Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) also worried a patient-dominated board with control over the budget, hours and services might call for "pie in the sky" services that the county can't afford.

Ann Keehn, a health department consultant, said the county has control over what it spends on health centers, and boards usually act "in collaboration" with their government sponsors.

Linda Mermelstein, acting health commissioner, said a resolution to authorize an increase in board members from nine to 26 has been filed with the legislature.

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