Crist comes to Metro: The U.S. Congressman and former Florida governor eyes expansion, promises political strength

By : Samuel Johnson
Comments: 0

(James Keane (L) speaks with Charlie Crist about the Metro expansion in St. Petersburg. Photo by Samuel Johnson.)

ST. PETERSBURG – Charlie Crist came back to his Tampa Bay roost May 30 to survey one of the area’s biggest LGBTQ success stories and to tackle an uncertain healthcare climate.

Crist, U.S. Representative for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, was given a tour of Metro Health and Wellness’ flagship facility in the city. After all, the 13th district includes a large swath of St. Petersburg where the facility resides. Metro Health and Wellness is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a $5.2 million dollar expansion and renovation. This bay area success is a one-stop location in Tampa Bay for primary care, HIV prevention and treatment, behavioral care, therapy and much more.

The former governor’s visit comes at a time when healthcare is up in the air in both federal and state legislative offices.

Upon Crist’s arrival, the enthusiasm was evident, not only among the Metro employees giving the tour, but also with Crist – or Charlie, as he insists on being called by all those he meets in the halls and office nooks. This enthusiasm for providing care to the LGBTQ community has been going strong since its inception in the early ‘90s. Metro grew out of a church outreach to lend palliative care to those dying of HIV/AIDS.

Naturally, there are other organizations and non-profits offering overlapping services with Metro, but there aren’t any that provide the totality that Metro does, Director of LGBTQ Community Center Services James Keane says. The hub and beating heart of the non-profit organization in St. Petersburg is just a stone’s throw from the old Georgie’s Alibi. It’s been at this location for about six years. Within the entire company there are roughly 140 employees, of which nearly 100 work at this location.

Priya Rajkumar, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Program Officer, says the renovation will increase the number of patient treatment capacity twofold. About two years ago Metro Health and Wellness began providing LGBTQ-focused primary care. It now serves about 2,000 primary care patients. Throughout the counties of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, the organization estimates nearly 6,000 people received some form of healthcare last year.

An undercurrent of concern intermittently arose throughout the Crist tour of the current and new facility: What will the United States, and more specifically the LGBTQ community, get in return if the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is repealed? Metro’s expansion seems like an antithesis to the maelstrom which surrounds the proposed repeal-and-replace of the Affordable Care Act currently being proffered by the Republican Party. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the repeal of Obamacare will mean at least 20 million people will be without healthcare in the next decade.

Keane is cautiously optimistic. He doesn’t see the newest iteration of the GOP’s healthcare reform (American Health Care Act) as moving very far in the Senate. He remains grounded and focused on a core endeavor of Metro’s mission: HIV/AIDS treatment and care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts Florida atop the list of states in number of cases of HIV/AIDS. Nonetheless, Keane recognizes the necessity of qualitatively affordable healthcare to the segments of the community that they serve.

Crist is also optimistic that the version of the American Health Care Act floating around the Senate is dead on arrival. Still, he declined giving the Florida Legislature or Governor Rick Scott a school grade on performance with respect to affordable healthcare.

In fact, Crist is terse in scolding Scott for inaction. “Tallahassee could have been helping a lot by accepting (the expansion of) Medicaid,” he says. “The Governor had said he was going to do it going up to the election, then [he] decided not to do it.”

LGBTQ Seniors will be impacted severely if the current GOP-tweaked healthcare reform bill is passed. Crist sees the young seniors (50-64, as he deems them) to be thrown into a disproportionate financial squeeze. He says insurance companies would be allowed to charge this group up to five times as much as younger people for coverage. To Crist that disparity is “unconscionable and cruel,” and the impact on seniors would be “dramatic and draconian.” It is a “horrible piece of legislation,” he went on to add. (The Kaiser Family Foundation found that only eight percent of Americans support the new plan).

Crist finished his tour in one of the facility’s conference halls and then was shown the blueprints for the expansion and renovation. He also had a look at the larger ongoing redevelopment plans for the surrounding area. The funding is in place and the work underway for completion around July 2018. But with an uncertain future of affordable healthcare looming, the services at Metro Health and Wellness still must keep going forward.

Keane views the takeaway from having a Congressman visit the facility can only be a positive. He says that it is a “real shot in the arm” having someone with “direct access to Washington,” who is “actually listening to the needs and concerns of this agency as a direct service provider.”

Share this story: