In an apparent about-face, the Peninsula Health Care District has approved $4.6 million in funding for a San Mateo County program that provides health care for uninsured, low-income adults.
The move follows a Bay Citizen investigation in March, which found that the taxpayer-supported district had rejected a request from the San Mateo County Health System last year for a $4 million grant to help the uninsured. At the time, the district had a $43 million reserve of current public assets.
The grant represents a large increase in funding for public health programs by the district. Last year, it spent 3.3 percent of its total assets – or $1.8 million – on health-related grants.
The district awarded the grant Thursday, after facing sharp criticism from state and local lawmakers for failing to provide enough funding for local health programs.
Daniel Ullyot, chairman of the board of the Peninsula Health Care District, said in a telephone interview Friday that the district approved the recent grant because it was comprehensive and detailed, unlike the county’s previous proposal.
“I don’t know if it was an about-face,” Ullyot said, adding that in the previous proposal, "there was no substance that could justify just writing a check to the county for their shortfalls.”
In a document submitted to the district last year, county officials provided details on who the grant would serve.
After the district rejected that proposal, the county submitted another grant request, which was approved Thursday.
County officials said the money is desperately needed.
“The District's substantial grant will go a long way to create access and reduce this strain for nearly 1,000 low income adults,” Louise Rogers, deputy chief for the San Mateo County Health System, said in an email Friday.
The Peninsula Health Care District is one of about 30 publicly funded health care districts out of about 74 statewide that no longer run hospitals. The Bay Citizen’s investigation found that some of the districts that don't run hospitals spend heavily on administrative overhead or amass large reserves.
That investigation triggered a legislative oversight hearing in April at which local officials criticized the Peninsula Health Care District for hoarding public dollars while ignoring community health care needs.
Jean Fraser, chief of the San Mateo County Health System, testified that the “Peninsula Health Care District does not believe they have any responsibility for the uninsured adults in their district.”
Lawmakers said the district’s decision to approve the $4.6 million grant was long overdue.
"This grant represents a step in the right direction to reassess the district's choices in building a rather generous reserve, instead of investing in significant health care needs in the community,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. “But it doesn't undercut the need to examine the need for health care districts and whether they have struck the right balance in meeting immediate and critical health needs versus other activities that they have undertaken."
Dickinson, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, said he plans to introduce legislation next year that would increase accountability and transparency among health care districts, and which would require them to spend more on community health.
This year, Dickinson and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, introduced legislation to force districts to spend 95 percent of their annual tax revenue on community health programs and services, but the bill failed to make it out of a key committee in May.
Gordon said that he’s “pleased” to learn of the grant, but emphasized that there is “plenty of work to be done” to provide health care to San Mateo County’s uninsured.
The grant will provide subsidized health care for poor residents in the district, which includes San Bruno, Millbrae, Burlingame, Hillsborough, San Mateo and parts of Foster City and South San Francisco.
This story was produced by Bay Citizen, a member of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.