A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — Rein in Medicare billing excesses

In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all of the children are above average. In too many doctors’ offices in Florida, virtually all of the Medicare patients qualify for the highest billing rate. No wonder the Medicare program needs shoring up to ensure its long-term future.

A new analysis by ProPublica shows nearly 160 medical providers in Florida billed Medicare at the highest rate on a scale of 1 to 5 for nearly all of their visits for established patients. For example, Sarasota psychiatrist Matthew Edlund charged all 1,415 office visits by 188 Medicare patients at the highest level. A Sebring doctor in general practice and a doctor who practices emergency medicine in the Villages also had perfect records. The accuracy of all of those billings seems highly suspect, and such practices undermine the financial stability of Medicare. Many doctors find the Medicare reimbursement rates to be too low, but the answer is not to bill at the highest rate regardless of the complexity of the patients’ treatment and the time spent with them.

Medicare pays for more than 200 million visits to doctors’ offices each year. Taxpayers cover the cost for the visits by established patients, with the price ranging from an average of $14 a visit to more than $100. The billing codes are supposed to reflect the complexity of the treatment and the amount of time spent with the patient. In Florida, according to the ProPublica analysis, 585 medical providers billed at the highest rate for at least half of their office visits. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare, should be more vigilant about ensuring that public money is being properly spent and doctors are not overbilling.

The Bradenton Herald — Manatee County enjoying growth in preserves, parks

While Manatee County government has performed remarkably in the development and expansion of nature preserves, the state stepped up this week with a ceremonial dedication at Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.

The completion of the first phase of this ecosystem restoration project encompasses 843 acres of land at a cost of $7.5 million. The entire Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve covers 22,000 acres.

Once farmland and then failed housing subdivisions, the state bought the property in 1998. The Southwest Florida Water Management District partnered with the state Department of Environmental Protection to build wetlands, remove invasive plants and restore wildlife habitats.

While the park lacks such amenities as the observation towers and boardwalks common in Manatee County’s preserves, a network of trails allows visitors to view the wildlife and wetlands and enjoy the mangroves and native palms.

Another 233 acres of upland and wetland habitats are targeted for restoration in the second phase, should that project win state funding.

A portion of this tract was once proposed for a giant resort, residential and commercial development called Skyway Preserve, but the idea was aborted. That’s a big positive for environmentalists and others who fought to keep this land at the southern approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge natural.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — State pulls bait and switch on taxes

What government “gives” you with one hand, it can take away with the other — often while hoping the taxpayer is not paying close attention.

That’s the bait and switch the state pulled in its recently concluded session.

At Gov. Rick Scott’s request, legislators passed a $400 million cut in car tag fees, effectively repealing the increase the Legislature passed in 2009 during a budget crisis caused by the Great Recession. The cut is the right move, as the hike had been sold as a temporary, emergency action to help offset declining revenues while staving off spending cuts in critical areas. Now that the state is running a budget surplus, the time is right to restore the previous lower fees.

However, at the same time Tallahassee is looking to spend more than $400 million more on education for 2014-15 — but making local taxpayers fund the bulk of it.

Each year the Legislature sets the Required Local Effort (RLE) rate, which is the property tax rate local school districts must levy in order to receive funding back from the state. The amount that each district receives is determined by a formula, with some getting back more than they sent up the pipe and others getting less. Volusia County is considered a “donor” county because it receives only about 97 cents on every dollar it sends to Tallahassee.

The Florida Times-Union — Major pension deal is within reach

Despite notable progress in negotiations to resolve the city’s fire and police pension crisis, taxpayers should be wary of accepting reforms that amount to only half a loaf.

With $1.65 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and mounting costs that adversely impact other city services, major changes must come from negotiations between the Mayor’s Office and representatives of police and fire unions attempting to settle a federal lawsuit.

Both sides have offered and accepted reasonable compromises in tentative agreements that they hope to finalize this week when negotiations focus again on hard money issues.

John Keane, administrator of the Police and Fire Pension Fund, has agreed to divert more than $100 million in discretionary funds toward paying down the pension liability. Those funds usually would go to enhance retirement benefits.

Payroll contributions from current employees would increase from 7 percent to 10 percent following pay raises.

In another significant concession, the pension fund would no longer play a role in negotiating retirement benefits; that would become part of collective bargaining as called for in state law

The Gainesville Sun – Life-saving law

The value of Florida’s “move over” law was illustrated by a deadly traffic crash May 3 on Interstate 75 near Ocala.

A pickup plowed into a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and two others as they stood on the shoulder of the interstate, according to FHP.

Trooper Chelsea Renee Richard had been wrapping up work on a traffic accident there. The crash killed Richard, tow truck driver John Duggan and George Phillips, whose daughter had been involved in the earlier accident.

In the wake of the tragedy, a renewed focus is being placed on a state law requiring motorists to move over when passing a parked law enforcement vehicle.

If the vehicle is parked along an interstate or other multi-lane road, the law requires motorists to leave the lane closest to it as soon as it is safe to do so. If that is not possible, motorists are required to slow down to a speed of 20 mph below the speed limit.

The Lakeland Ledger — Decline in Orange Juice Sales: Push to Erase Greening

Sales of orange juice declined 6.8 percent over the four weeks that ended April 21, compared with the same time in 2013, reports the Bartow-based Florida Department of Citrus.

The rate is getting worse, after declines of 3.5 percent to 5.3 percent, reported The Ledger’s Kevin Bouffard in an article Friday.

For the annual season that started in October, orange juice sales have declined 5.3 percent.

The decreases add to the pressure on scientists to find a cure or solution for citrus greening.

This season’s orange juice crop was predicted to produce 125 million boxes. However, as of May 9, the projection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decreased to 110.3 million boxes of oranges. That would result in the smallest crop in 24 years.

Unlike some traditional products, demand for orange juice has not decreased, for which those in the citrus industry can be thankful. However, it is fair to note that there is a difference in sales between not-from-concentrate juice versus orange juice that is made from frozen concentrate, which is not keeping up, Citrus Department officials say.

The Miami Herald — The big sweep

More than half of the people arrested in six cities across the country and charged with Medicare fraud this week were from South Florida. Of course — we’re No. 1, but not in a good way.

In South Florida, 50 suspects were nabbed in the two-day operation, charged with trying to pocket almost $66 million from the federal healthcare program. It’s greed gone wild — and it comes at the expense of taxpayers, honest medical providers and, worst of all, elderly patients who got bogus care — if they got any care at all — and medications they don’t need.

The take-down was commendable and encouraging — the result of strong partnerships among the U.S. Department of Justice, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the law-enforcement community, including the FBI, and the legal community, plus new provisions courtesy of the much-maligned Affordable Care Act — Obamacare. The law offers new technical tools to help prevent Medicare fraud and imposes way tougher restrictions on who can be a Medicare provider.

For all these strides, however, resources remain stretched and unable to catch even more fraudsters in this ever-fertile region for such bold and, unfortunately, lucrative deception — or stop them before they get started.

As reported by the Herald’s Jay Weaver, in addition to the usual suspects nabbed in such sweeps — doctors, nurses and squirrelly clinic owners — this time around, 37 of those arrested were “patient recruiters.” They stand accused of pocketing thousands of dollars in bribes for supplying Medicare beneficiaries to crooked home-health agencies, mental health clinics and pharmacies. On top of that, patients themselves, accused of taking kickbacks to let their Medicare cards be fraudulently used, are among those swept up in the bust.

The Orlando Sentinel — Lou Ann DeVoogd and Mark Hanissee: Champ & Chump

Champ

Lou Ann DeVoogd: The CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities in Central Florida led a successful campaign for a third house in the region — a $5.75 million facility scheduled to open next year near Nemours Children’s Hospital in Lake Nona. Orlando will become one of just six cities in the nation with three Ronald McDonald Houses, which let families stay near hospitals when their children are getting treatment. About 1,800 families a year stay at the houses near Florida Hospital and Orlando Health. DeVoogd has been building support in this community for this good cause for 18 years.

Chump

Mark Hanissee: Pinellas County’s Democratic chairman, showing neither manners nor smarts, warned a prominent African-American pastor in a voicemail that he would be “persona non grata” if he dared to seek the party’s nod in a local congressional race. But the candidate Hanisee and other party bosses preferred wasn’t even a registered Democrat, and he dropped out after reports that he had padded his resume. The Democrats would up with no one on the ballot, and a serious rift to heal with the black community. This week Hanissee said he was sorry for his “perceived insult.” How big of him.

The Ocala StarBanner — Florida gains by fostering higher ed

California’s state university system is widely considered the best in the nation, with six of its schools ranked among the top 50 in U.S. News’ latest list of the best national universities.

Florida, by contrast, has one school among the top 50: the University of Florida at No. 49.

California, unlike Florida, has no merit-based scholarships. Financial aid is need-based. Students with family incomes of less than $80,000 pay no tuition at state universities.

Of course, lack of a merit program is not the only reason for the success of California’s system. Its state universities also are better funded with in-state tuition double that of Florida’s universities. Also, California’s system, unlike Florida’s, is governed by a board with the authority to spread financial benefits among all its schools.

All those qualities are worth considering as Florida struggles to fund its merit-based scholarship program, Bright Futures.

For now, the Florida Legislature has reduced the amounts awarded through Bright Futures scholarships and boosted the eligibility requirements.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Joe Scarborough: NY Times should practice what it preaches

The New York Times has always made a great sport of blasting away at Republican politicians on gender issues. Sometimes the liberal paper implies conservatives are insensitive to women’s causes.

But when the stakes are really high during campaign seasons, you can always count on the Times to lead with hyperbole and accuse Republicans of engaging in a full scale “war on women.”

A month after Republicans took back control of Congress in 2011, an angry Times Editorial Board published a column subtlety called “The War on Women.” In it, the editors breathlessly charged that “Republicans in the House of Representatives are mounting an assault on women’s health and freedom.”

As the 2012 presidential race was rolling around, the paper of record upped the ante by attacking the GOP for having a “hostility to women’s rights” while accusing Republicans of launching an “assault on women’s equality and well-being.”

This naked partisanship was embarrassing enough back then, since the paper seemed to be coordinating their editorial attacks to match neatly with Democrats’ campaign year talking points.

The Palm Beach Post — Focus VA hearings on accountability, eliminating delays

Revelations that VA administrators in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere may have concealed the number of veterans waiting months for appointments are disturbing.

The VA administrators’ year-end bonuses apparently have depended, in part, on their progress shortening the waiting lists. The men and women who fought for this country deserve the facts about the true size of the waiting lists. Most importantly, veterans deserve the health care they were promised, promptly and safely, without political grandstanding or gridlock.

The Panama City News-Herald — A trio of sales tax holidays

Mark your calendars. Gov. Rick Scott has signed off on legislation creating not just the usual sales tax holiday on back-to-school supplies but two new tax holidays as well.

This unprecedented generosity was made possible, we’re told, by Florida’s economy, which is sturdy enough these days to promise Tallahassee budgeteers a billion-dollar surplus.

It was also made possible by a governor seeking re-election. It won’t hurt Rick Scott if he’s known as the guy who tripled Florida shoppers’ traditional tax break.

We’ll take it, regardless of the politics.

The bill signed this week creates a nine-day holiday, beginning May 31, during which shoppers can buy hurricane preparation supplies — think flashlights, batteries, generators and such — without having to pay the state’s 6 percent sales tax. Hurricane season begins June 1.

In August there will be a three-day tax holiday on back-to-school items. Shoppers will get a tax break on clothes worth as much as $100 and school supplies priced up to $15. The state will also drop its sales tax on the first $750 of a personal computer’s price tag.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Urban incubator

Down on Railroad Avenue, near the Amtrak station, some warehouse space opened up when Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho moved his voting machines to another site. That was good news for the county’s facilities folks, who were looking for a place to store brooms, shovels and the like.

But Leon County government had a bigger idea, first formed at a retreat three years ago.

Ken Morris, director of economic development and business partnerships for the county, looked at the building and decided, “That’s it! That’s our urban incubator.”

The idea of an incubator to develop new businesses and keep smart, entrepreneurial graduates in town is not a new one. There are major incubators associated with the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, for example, as there are in numerous other college towns.

But, with an infrastructure, available venture capital and focus on technology transfer insufficient to keep potential entrepreneurs here, Leon County kept missing out on the pipeline of innovation coming from Florida State University, as well as Florida A&M. As County Commission Chairwoman Kristin Dozier put it, “Cheap office space is not an incubator.”

That changes this week, with Thursday’s grand opening of the Domi Station Business Incubator (the ceremony is at 6 p.m. at 918 Railroad Avenue).

The Tampa Tribune — Beyond platitudes on Armed Services Day

Today is a minor holiday with a major theme. We are asked to honor the service of all branches of the U.S. military.

Designated in 1949, Armed Services Day has never had the flash of the Fourth of July. It gives no vacation from work as does Memorial Day on May 26. It’s easy to confuse with Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

But judging from the number of bumper stickers and signs urging us to support the troops, today’s official recognition of the vital service of men and women in uniform is not superfluous.

In a restaurant the other day, we saw a woman leave her family’s table and walk over to where four men dressed in military fatigues were eating lunch. When they looked up at her, she said, “We just want to thank you for your service.” They nodded, and she smiled and went back to her table.

It’s common, especially in the South, to witness similar examples of heartfelt gratitude.

Also underlying some appeals for the troops are broader political goals, such as support for a strong national defense and the forceful promotion of freedom and democracy abroad.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.