NBC2 Investigates: Who pays for healthcare for the homeless?
FORT MYERS, Fla. (WBBH) — Amid a national health crisis, a homeless crisis emerged in Lee County.
Over the past several months, the seemingly growing homeless population moved from Centennial Park in Fort Myers, to Lions Park, to most recently the back of a run-down plaza in North Fort Myers.
As elected leaders work on how and where to house the homeless — with millions of county and federal money designated for exactly that — there’s a sobering reminder that lingers.
People aren’t just living on the streets. They’re dying on them.
Two homeless men featured in a NBC2 report last year have sinced died. Others are surviving, but suffering. While reporting on the homeless camp at Lions Park, NBC2’s Dave Elias called an ambulance for a man who said he was having a seizure.
Wednesday, NBC2 found Roger Heidler — who said he, too, is homeless — out panhandling off Edison Avenue. He said he’s been to the hospital about 25 times in the past year, including some 10 ambulance rides, for issues related to alcoholism.
“Just on the streets, man,” Heidler said, trying to hold back tears. “Down and out.”
“We just can’t turn a blind eye and pretend we don’t see it,” Kristy Dutton said.
Dutton is the Director of Emergency Services for two Lee Health hospitals, Lee Memorial and Gulf Coast Medical Center.
While the homeless population in Lee County doesn’t clog the emergency room like in some cities, she said a major concern is the condition of those who do make it through the ER doors.
“We find people that have a lot of chronic illness and a lot of things going on that have been left untreated,” Dutton explained. “So sometimes they come in and they are sicker than the average patient.”
Heidler said insurance through disability helps cover his hospital trips and ambulance rides, but many who are homeless don’t have insurance or money to pay their medical bills. So who does pay?
While Lee Health does not receive taxpayer money, the health system did spend $72 million out of their budget in 2020 on what’s called ‘charity care,’ medical services that go unpaid, though that isn’t only for the homeless population. Charity care is covered in part by the patients who are insured.
Lee County EMS is a taxpayer-funded service, though a county spokesperson said they don’t keep track of how often the homeless use the service, or how much money is ultimately written off for those who can’t pay their bills.
“If you come to an emergency room, there is not one physician or one nurse who knows whether you’re insured or not,”Dutton explained. “They don’t care and they don’t know. We’re just here to give you the care, and that’s what we do.”
Fort Myers mayor Kevin Anderson told NBC2 there are health resources for the homeless, like the Family Health Centers and Bob Janes Triage Center. But Anderson said getting homeless individuals to the right place for help — and convincing them to actually accept the care — is a challenge. Mental illness and addiction play a role in that resistance.
Anderson acknowledged that, ultimately, part of the cost to treat the homeless is falling on the taxpayers, though exactly how much is difficult to determine.
“There are a lot of people in the community that just can’t pay for their healthcare right now,” Dutton said. “We as a community just have to care.”
In Collier County, there’s a new program aimed at improving healthcare for the homeless. NCH is funding an onsite, registered nurse to serve residents of the St. Matthew’s House homeless shelters. The program, which includes a partnership with the Neighborhood Health Clinic, is expected to reduce the number of visits to the ER.
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