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Broward commissioners to decide if new tax will fund multi-million dollar health project

The website for the Broward Heart Project spearheaded by County Commissioner Mark Bogen.
The website for the Broward Heart Project spearheaded by County Commissioner Mark Bogen.

A $10 million pilot program that provides cardiac tests is being audited to determine if the money is being spent to benefit thousands of county residents with a potentially life-saving service , emails obtained by WLRN show.

The audit follows a contentious county meeting last month among commissioners over whether to fund the Heart Project program through a surtax of less than a penny, and ask Broward voters to approve it through a referendum in November. Commissioners meet Tuesday to make a final decision.

Supporters say it gives people access to a lifesaving test that most cardiologists don't currently perform. Critics think the county shouldn’t be considering a new sales tax that would bring in $50 million per year to the program.

Commissioner Mark Bogen is spearheading The Broward Heart Project. The program provides funding for a coronary computed tomography angiography screening, which is essentially a CT scan of the heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But at the March 21 meeting some commissioners questioned what the program would do with all the tax money, as it has spent only a quarter of its budget for the pilot program.

The audit plans to investigate how much money was spent on advertising and which firms were used. It will also look at where the tests were performed and how much they cost.

But Bogen told WLRN he believes the audit will prove his point.

“I'm proud of the audit,” he said. “The audit will end up showing … we are saving lives. I'm proud of what we've done.”

The project, which has been administering tests for a little over a year, was approved by commissioners in June 2022. Commissioners gave $10 million from the general fund to start the two-year pilot program. The county is working with SydCura, who is in charge of running the program.

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The pilot program was supposed to target a minimum of 20,000 residents. They were to be broken up into groups such as seniors aged 65 and over, and minority populations who have been historically medically underserved. The program is also designed to include individuals between the ages of 45 and 70.

Each person participating in the pilot program has to be covered by public or private insurance.

So far, the county program has only scheduled screenings for about 3200 people and used about $2.5 million of the $10 million pilot program budget, according to county documents.

Now, Bogen wants Broward County voters to decide if they will implement a sales tax that would yield about $50 million a year.

The money would go towards the cardiac screening program and other healthcare for people who have no insurance or couldn’t otherwise afford primary and hospital care, he said. It would also give millions to a level 1 trauma center.

Commissioners disagree

At a February 20 meeting, Bogen gave commissioners an update on the program. County Administrator Monica Cepero said the program at that point had used just over $2 million of their $10 million budget.

During the meeting, Commissioner Bogen said of the 1,340 people the program had screened, 700 needed some sort of medical attention afterwards. The number has since grown to about 1700 screenings.

"It's incredible the amount of walking time bombs there are, and we're actually showing results of saving lives,” Bogen told commissioners.

At the March 21 meeting, Bogen asked his colleagues to allow him to bring them a plan to put a new surtax on the November ballot. The sales tax would be set at a quarter of a penny and yield roughly $125 million for the program every year excluding food and medicine purchases.

Bogen told WLRN he recently walked back the amount to a tenth of a penny sales tax, which would result in about $50 million a year for the program for 10 years.

Still, with such a small percentage of money used so far from the pilot program, some commissioners questioned what Bogen would do with that much extra funding.

“We can't get people to take these tests,” said Commissioner Michael Udine during the March commission meeting. “I want to keep promoting the heart tests if we can do it. But if that turns out to where we can't even make that happen, we have to really rethink where all these dollars are going to come from.”

Commissioner Michael Udine speaks at a County Commission meeting on March 21, 2024.
Broward County
Commissioner Michael Udine speaks at a County Commission meeting on March 21, 2024.

Bogen told WLRN because of state statutes, some of the money from the tax would go to local hospitals. He said this would replace money the county currently sends – about $15 million a year to their two public hospital systems, Memorial and Broward Health, for indigent care.

Another chunk of money from the tax, $6.5 million would go to a trauma center, leaving about $25 million for the heart project, he added.

Bogen said his goal is a county-operated center where these tests and cancer screenings could take place. Currently, the program uses machines at other hospitals which causes scheduling delays, Bogen said.

During the March meeting, commissioners quarreled over the idea for a ballot initiative. Some commissioners against the referendum were in favor of the tests, but argued that it should fall on the county's two hospital districts to set aside money for healthcare.

Mayor Nan Rich argued that this program could be funded by the because the hospitals have taxing authority in Broward County.

"They are responsible, that is their core mission: healthcare,” she said about the hospitals. “I'm thrilled that we were able to do a pilot program. There's a lot of information that actually shows an existing need that is not being met in our community, and I think we should continue to support it.”

Ultimately the commission voted in a 5-4 split to allow Bogen to return with a plan by the April 16 meeting. Most said they were skeptical, however, that he could get it done.

Audit and plan

"We will conduct an audit of the Heart Health Pilot Program, containing information on the areas requested, County auditor Robert Melton wrote in an email on March 25. "Realizing that time is of the essence, we will be beginning our review as soon as we can make staffing available."

That audit could be completed before the commission's next meeting on April 16.

A consultant report sent to commissioners this week from Health Management Associates, a national healthcare consulting firm, stated that besides the 1700 people who have been screened there are more than 1,000 appointments scheduled. According to the report, 59% of those tested so far have had results that merited a follow up with a doctor.

The report details a county healthcare plan that the voters could approve through a popular referendum on the November ballot.

“I have no respect for their opinion,” Bogen said of the authors of the report. “They didn't answer what we were seeking them to answer.”

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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