Elder man's health

The West Volusia Hospital Authority has one more chance to finalize its tax rate for the coming year, and commissioners are saying they would like to lower the rate, to reduce the burden on West Volusia property owners.

The final decision will be made at 5:05 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, when the Hospital Authority Board of Commissioners meets via teleconference.

At the Sept. 10, budget hearing, Hospital Authority commissioners voted unanimously on a tentative budget that reduces health care expenditures by about $2 million.

The cuts include reducing support for West Volusia hospitals from $5.7 million to $3 million.

Another cut included a $10,000 reduction in support for Rising Against All Odds, and that cut caused tension and even charges of racism.

RAAO is not the only nonprofit organization supported by the Hospital Authority that could see a decline in funding in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

If the tentative budget becomes final, other organizations will also see funding reductions, including The House Next Door, Florida Department of Health Dental Services and Stewart-Marchman-Act’s program to help homeless people.

Some of the organizations requested less money from the WVHA, while others will receive less funding than they asked for. Most cuts are between $10,000 and $30,000.

Tension over the allocation for Rising Against All Odds carried over from the Aug. 20 Hospital Authority meeting, where several of the commissioners considered reducing the funding for RAAO to screen potential clients to see if they are eligible to receive the Hospital Authority’s health card. RAAO received $50,000 last year; this year, it is set to get $40,000, still shy of the $50,000 it requested.

RAAO is one of two nonprofit agencies — the other is The House Next Door — that receive funding from the Hospital Authority to screen members of the community for the health card program. Several commissioners, including Dr. John Hill, have argued that funding RAAO for the application-screening program is redundant: If THND, which receives nearly $400,000 for application-screening, is doing the screening, why pay RAAO $50,000 to do it, as well?

But RAAO founder and CEO Brenda Flowers said the population RAAO serves, many of whom are homeless, is different from the population served by THND.

That makes RAAO’s service not redundant, but beneficial to the community, Flowers said.

“I’m just a little confused,” she said of the budget cut.

She added that she was unsure why the $10,000 difference was causing so much consternation among the Hospital Authority commissioners, when they have millions of dollars in reserves.

Commissioners pushed back, including Commissioner Dolores Guzman, who insisted the Hospital Authority must be “good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.”

During an earlier discussion, Gina Hickman, a DeLand citizen in favor of maintaining RAAO’s funding, suggested the tension between the Hospital Authority and RAAO was a manifestation of systemic racism against Flowers — a Black woman — and against the Black community.

At the beginning of the Sept. 10 meeting, both Hill and Flowers submitted letters to be read to the board. The full text of each letter is available to read as a PDF document to the right.

Hill challenged the accusation of systemic racism.

“We offer a health card to serve the indigent of this community! We do not exclude anyone based on their race, color, sex, country of origin, political beliefs or citizenship,” Hill’s letter reads. It later states, “The Hospital Authority Board is comprised of males, females, whites, blacks and Hispanic members and does not have any requirements based on ethnicity to serve.”

Flowers’ letter reiterated the importance of RAAO’s services:

“The social disparities we see among underserved populations and other impoverished citizens are the results of structural inequalities that make them more likely to foster chronic illnesses, to come in contact with disease and less likely to seek preventive care or care maintenance,” her letter reads. “Assisting those with unique demographics and social/economic barriers to access health care by applying for the WVHA Health Card is beneficial in lowering the number of emergency room visits, which directly benefits the taxing district of West Volusia County.”

The final budget hearing for the WVHA is scheduled for 5:05 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, via teleconference. The number to join the teleconference is 1-339-209-4657, and the access code is 776002.