Health exec signals changes as Fla. governor

One state with a compelling storyline in health care is Florida. It’s because of the new guy in charge.

Rick Scott had a history as a health care empire builder prior to winning the Florida governorship. Part of his legacy, though, isn’t altogether flattering.

Scott’s political rise featured a long-shot candidacy. A Republican, he financed his own gubernatorial campaign to the tune of more than $70 million. Running as an outsider with conservative views, he defeated the Republican favorite, Attorney General Bill McCollum, in the primary, and then came from behind to beat Democrat Alex Sink in the general election. He was inaugurated Tuesday.

But Scott is widely known elsewhere, including in Georgia, for his building of a formidable hospital chain in the 1990s. He co-founded Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital company that grew to operate 350 facilities nationally. At one time the company operated 20 hospitals in Georgia. Scott and Columbia/HCA were considered an aggressive threat to the whole nonprofit hospital business.

During his days of snapping up hospital after hospital, Scott was asked at an Atlanta hotel whether he was concerned that he was moving too fast. No, he replied. “I’m worried that I’m not moving fast enough.’’

But Columbia/HCA became engulfed in a Medicare fraud scandal that ultimately cost Scott his job in 1997. The company eventually paid $1.7 billion in fines. Scott was not charged with any personal wrongdoing, but his political opponents in 2010 said the scandal raised questions about his leadership.

After being forced out of Columbia/HCA, Scott invested in many ventures, including health care. His largest single stake, according to Florida Capital News, is $62 million worth of stock in Solantic Corp., a chain of Florida walk-in clinics that he founded.

The company isn’t publicly traded, so Scott may have trouble selling the stock. He has said that while governor he will not participate in any decision-making by Solantic. Scott added that state regulators won’t be intimidated because of his link to Solantic, according to Florida Capital News.

In the run-up to Scott’s inauguration, newspapers in Florida noted that corporate groups were contributing heavily to the festivities. Scott raised $2.8 million, with health care interests donating at least $321,000 of that amount, including $110,000 from insurance companies, according to Health News Florida.

Will Scott, so familiar with health care, shake up the state’s medical delivery system?  Already there are signs of swift, dramatic action.

Scott’s transition team has released a report calling for the consolidation of all state health care regulatory agencies. (Georgia has moved in the opposite direction, spinning off mental health into a separate unit and considering doing the same for public health.)

The Scott team has also proposed creating a panel to study whether government-owned hospitals are necessary.

Scott has decided to close the state Office of Drug Control. He has promised tort reform and supports expanding the use of managed care in the Florida Medicaid program. And, like most other conservative Republicans, he opposes the federal health care reform law.

If Scott’s corporate past is any indication, the status quo in Florida health care is about to change significantly. The Rick Scott governorship should be fascinating to watch.