Polk residents to vote on indigent health care sales tax renewal

By Stephanie Claytor, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, October 21, 2016

This November, Polk County voters will decide if they want to renew the county’s half-cent indigent health care sales tax. It has been in place since 2004 and it ends in 2019 unless it is renewed.

  • County officials: tax generates $35 - $40 million every year
  • About $14 million currently pays for programs the County is required to fund
  • If renewed, tax would remain in place until 2045

The money has helped around 43,000 people receive health care services through the county’s Polk HealthCare plan and through its community partners, mostly non-profit clinics such as Central Florida Healthcare.

James Clay is one of the many people who benefits from the tax money.

"I don't have a job. After the stroke, I lost my job," said Clay, who used to work as a truck driver.
 
He said he was using insurance provided through the Affordable Care Act, but it got to be too expensive after he lost his job. He’s too young for Medicare, so he’s hoping to qualify for disability.

For now, he’s on the county’s plan and seeing doctors at Central Florida Healthcare.

"It's a good deal," said Clay. "It helps a lot when you have nothing."

The indigent health care sales tax generates between $35 to 40 million every year, depending on the economy, according to Joy Johnson,  the director of the county's Indigent Health Care program.

"Not only is Polk County the only county in Florida that has a voter-approved half cent health care sales tax, we have people who are benefitting from the services that are contributing as well,” Johnson said. “So, the burden does not fall solely on property owners. It spreads to everyone making purchases in the county."
 
That includes tourists and snowbirds.

According to Johnson, around $14 million of the tax money is used to pay for mandated programs that the county is required to fund. If the tax isn’t renewed, county commissioners would have to decide how to pay for those mandated programs.

"They could either look at cuts in services, or they could look at property tax increases," Johnson said.
 
In a Polk County Health Care study, prepared by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, it’s estimated that by 2019, Polk County’s  property tax rate would have to increase by an estimated 1.3391 mils, from 6.7815 to 8.2642 mils, in order to continue operating at the same level as the revenue currently being generated by the half-cent sales tax.

It’s the reason Central Florida Healthcare’s CEO Ann Claussen, chair of the "Keep Polk Kids Healthy" political action committee, is leading the charge to educate people about the tax so they are informed when they go to the voting booth.  

"We have not heard of any opposition at all," said Claussen. "And we've received full support from the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce and the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce."
 
If voters decide to renew the half-cent indigent health care sales tax, it would be around until 2045. 

To find out more about the county's Polk HealthCare plan, visit http://www.polk-county.net/boccsite/Your-Government/Citizens-Healthcare-Oversight-Committee/.