Sarasota County could be on the hook for $300 million in medical bills for care that private hospitals gave to poor patients after a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday.
The court ruled that an obscure law requires Sarasota County to reimburse any hospital within its borders, public or private, for indigent care. The law was originally on the books in 1959 and the Legislature repealed and replaced it with similar language in 2003. Eight years later, two private Sarasota hospitals discovered it and began billing the county for years of care for the poor.
"This is going to be a big blow to our county,'' said County Commissioner Nancy Detert.
Lawyers for the hospitals didn't immediately return messages seeking comment after the ruling, but one said in arguments before the Supreme Court last year that they weren't looking for the courts to determine how much they are owed, but rather a judgment that they are entitled to reimbursement. During those arguments, lawyer Raoul Cantero said the amount of reimbursement can be negotiated or settled in court at a different time.
But the amount hanging over Sarasota County's head is $300 million.
"That's an unrealistic number. That's never going to happen,'' Detert said. "It would be unrealistic of anyone to think they're going to be entitled to that payment.''
A trial court and appeals court ruled in favor of the county, saying the state constitution prohibits laws that benefit an individual corporation.
But the Supreme Court reversed those decisions and said the law only spells out the geographic area of the county's hospital district and allows any hospital to benefit. It noted that there isn't just one corporation that benefits from the law.