TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Department of Health asked for an increase to their more than $3 billion budget at a late afternoon Florida House committee meeting Monday. The request comes months after the state budget for the fiscal year was finalized, and after the department received more than $3 billion in federal grants, which effectively doubled their budget during the pandemic.

During the Health Care Appropriations subcommittee meeting, the DOH representative making the request didn’t mention COVID-19 once, though the pandemic has led to federal grants that have effectively more than doubled their budget for the current fiscal year.

Florida’s legislature passed the state budget in April. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in June. In the $101.5 billion budget, the Department of Health received $3.16 billion. The funding was split among multiple programs and uses, and the budget summary from the state senate shows they had 12,681 positions on payroll.

Before DOH presented their requests, the Agency for Healthcare Administration and the Department of Children and Families made their own budgeting proposals for additional funding.

Deputy Secretary for Operations Michele Tallent presented the Department of Health’s FY22-23 legislative budget request. Through Tallent, the department requested an increase of $49.3 million from “LBR,” $10.4 million in general revenue and $38.8 million in trust funds, what she said was a 1.6 percent increase in the budget.

The deputy secretary said the $3.1 billion was a yearly, recurring budget for the department as she began her presentation.

Budget for preventing child deaths

Tallent said the first issue for the department’s budgetary request is focused on addressing infant mortality requested $2.8 million to address the two main issues that lead to preventable child deaths in Florida. Those issues are sleep-related infant death and drowning.

Tallent said those problems were identified by Children’s Medical Services Child Abuse Death Review Board. She presented a set of slides breaking down the budget requests, starting with one titled “Improving Children’s Wellbeing.”

The department also requested funding from a combination of general revenue and trust funds authority to continue the Early Steps Systematic Improvement Plan.

Tallent said the funds would be used to pay for lead implementation coaches, new computers and software, cameras and infrastructure-related equipment, professional training, costs for travel and public awareness campaigns, and assistance in funding technical assistance for child outcome summary process.

DOH is also requesting $575,000 split evenly between general revenue and trust funds for the Medical Foster Care Recruitment Campaign, to recruit additional candidates to foster medically complex children.

The department also requested $800,000 in non-recurring general revenue for Reducing Infant and Maternal Morbidity and Mortality program to “contract with a research institution to implement the Self-Designated and Verified Maternal and Newborn Hospital Level of Care Program, developed by the CDC,” according to the Improving Children’s Wellbeing slide presented by Tallent for the DOH.

Budget for administrative costs

Next, Tallent presented an increased budget request for administrative needs.

She requested $1 million in trust fund authority to increase licensing options for use of Microsoft 365 due to increased costs, as well as additional funds to comply with Florida’s statutes regarding information security.

For compliance needs with Florida Statute Chapter 282.206, The Cloud First Policy, DOH requested $1.9 million in appropriation for transferring data processing assessment category to contracted services.

The department also requested $2 million in general revenue to contract with outside legal counsel “due to additional lawsuits arising from the enactment of new laws and adoption of new roles governed by the department,” Tallent said.

Additionally, Tallent said the DOH is requesting $700,000 from general revenue funds to pay for mitigating public health outcomes, to let the Florida Poison Information Center Network to address emergency care and public health threat mitigation and surveillance and provide disaster support as needed.

$3.8 million was also requested for group care program services. It’s a program that “covers the gap between local funds and the program’s actual expenditures.” The department requested funds for medical quality assurance, due to high turnover of attorneys as a result of lower pay. Tallent said the MQA issues need a “competitive pay adjustment” so they can “attract and retain” talented attorneys.

The department MQA is also requesting 19 Full-time equivalents for the Bureau of Healthcare Practitioner Regulation “due to the increasing high OPS turnover rates,” which Tallent said makes an impact on ongoing trainings for new hires and application processing times for those seeking employment.

DOH also needs to replace 10 vehicles that meet “DMS/EMS guidelines.” Tallent said for continuation of IT systems, the DOH is requesting $1.5 million in trust fund authority to complete the Courtney Project, which deals with “rare and severe opportunistic infection, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy,” according to an informational site on the non-profit.

An additional $1.7 million was requested for the Department’s Division of Medical Quality assurance to pay for a Year 2 continuation of artificial intelligence customer service solutions. The project is expected to complete by 2022 or 2023.

DOH also requested $2.8 million in trust fund authority to hire a vendor that will build a new “Early Steps Administrative System,” aimed at replacing the current version which was developed in 1981 according to Tallent.

Budget for medical marijuana programs

Switching gears to petition additional funds for the Office of Medical Marijuana Use in Florida, DOH requested five more budgetary allocations, all from trust fund authority.

The largest request from the marijuana section was for nearly $13 million to handle the office’s workload and its 85 FTEs. The slide on the topic said that “an increase in active patients and licensed Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers, additional FTE’s, contracted services, and expense appropriation is needed” to handle the demand.

OMMU Information Technology Systems were the focus of an additional $4.4 million request, to implement enhancements for the Registry and CLEAR system at the office, and handle recurring hosting and maintenance costs for the Seed-to-Sale system.

Another $4 million was requested to pay for statewide education and medical marijuana outreach programs, including a campaign to prevent illegal or “illicit” use of marijuana in Florida. Recreational marijuana continues to be a topic making policy rounds as attempts to put a legalization amendment on the 2022 ballot have repeatedly failed to clear legal hurdles.

“The office is requesting $4 million to implement a statewide education and prevention campaign, to publicize accurate information regarding the legal, healthy and self use and possession of marijuana, particularly among children,” Tallent said.

DOH also asked for $281,370 to buy six vehicles for use in medical marijuana laboratory testing and $3.3 million for a Minority Education Campaign to comply with statutes regarding the transfer of funding to Florida A&M University for the public service program. The vehicles would be used to transport marijuana to a lab in Jacksonville for testing, according to Tallent.

Lawmakers request clarifications

Questions from committee members following the presentation asked about the use of funding for litigation. Rep. Carlos Smith, FLD49, asked about use of outside counsel compared to inside counsel, and asked how much was being spent on litigation fighting release of COVID-19 data reports, but Tallent said that the Office of the Inspector General would have to be brought in to provide specific amounts.

Smith also mentioned that COVID-19 had not been “mentioned once” in the entirety of Tallent’s presentation, and asked how much DOH was requesting to fight the pandemic and the COVID-19 virus.

“We went before the LBC in September and received additional funding for COVID. Again, because of the spending we have to monitor, and we’re so early into the [fiscal] year, we’re going to monitor that and then as [legislative] session comes around, we will work with the members and the staff to probably due back at the bill language,” Tallent said. “That’s what we did for 21-22.”

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, FLD90, raised concerns about spending so much of the additionally requested funds on marijuana, particularly during the ongoing pandemic. Skidmore requested a meeting to go through the details of the budget request, which Tallent said could be scheduled.

However, Tallent also mentioned that the department had received “$3.2 billion in federal grants” and so the department will continue to work with congressional staff as the session approaches.

The bulk of that came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, accounting for $2.94 billion, or almost 82 percent of the grants awarded. Of that nearly $3 billion, $2.74 billion came form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, FLD101, focused on the budget needs for administration. Of the $1.9 million requested, Woodson wanted to know how much of the budget would be needed to operate both systems as the upgrade is completed and to handle transfer to the cloud system.

Tallent said she was not sure how much of the budget would go to the systems operating concurrently, but would check on the details and get back to her.

(Source: USAspending.gov)

Data from the federal government supports the amount cited by Tallent, with the FDOH receiving about $3.2 billion for the 2021 Fiscal Year, according to reports listed on USAspending.gov, a site run by the government that tracks grants, awards and their recipients.

The committee meeting adjourned without a vote on the budget requests fielded from any of the three agencies or departments that presented.

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