Midway through this morning's meeting of the North Broward Hospital District's board, Commissioner Robert Bernstein decided it was time to acknowledge the "white elephant in the room."
A tantalizing prospect, because this room was positively teeming with white elephants. There was the pending criminal investigation of the commissioner seated a several seats to Bernstein's left, Joseph Cobo. A few seats closer was the white elephant issue of whether Chairman Mike Fernandez acted ethically in pressuring an independent attorney to end an investigation of Cobo. There was yet another white elephant sitting in the chair to Bernstein's right: Acting General Counsel Sam Goren. If they've been paying attention, commissioners should know that Goren declared he had conflicts of interest with the district in December but that he neglected to mention conflicts in the moments after the board offered him the job in mid-May.
But to this reporter's chagrin, Bernstein chose the lamest elephant: He asked about how the passage of Obama's health care reform package might affect the special tax district. Could it be mark the end of the district as a public entity?
A less sexy topic, but a legitimate one all the same. As Bernstein pointed out at the meeting, the district acts as safety net for the region's uninsured. To ease the burden of this social role, it receives a portion of its funding from taxes -- currently, $1.6255 of every $1,000 of taxable property value.
But the Obama health care plan would cover the vast majority of Americans, leading Bernstein to ask, "If everyone is insured, are we entitled to take tax dollars for treating uninsured patients -- when they no longer exist?"
With the Obama administration still deciding how hard to push for the passage of health care reform before the August recess, district CEO Frank Nask told Bernstein that it was still "way early" to know what impact the bill's passage would have in Broward. Obama's giving a primetime speech on the topic tonight.
Whatever happens in Washington, it's certainly no excuse for the commissioners not to deal directly and swiftly with the ethical issues in their backyard.