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Panel Okays Judicial Check on Public Hospital Purchases

By: Jim Saunders, Health News Florida
By: Jim Saunders, Health News Florida
With the hospital industry divided on the issue, a House committee on April 21 approved a bill that would require judges to sign off on deals that would shift control of public hospitals to private companies.

doctor is measuring the pulse of her patient

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 22, 2011 -

With the hospital industry divided on the issue, a House committee on Thursday approved a bill that would require judges to sign off on deals that would shift control of public hospitals to private companies.

The Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to approve HB 619, which one supporter said would stop “sweetheart” deals to lease or sell public hospitals.

“This bill is designed to make sure taxpayers don’t get screwed anymore,’’ said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, a business group whose members include for-profit hospitals.

But the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which includes public hospitals, is trying to kill the bill. Lobbyist Mark Delegal said the measure could make it nearly impossible to sell or lease public hospitals --- or, on the other extreme, set the legal stage for a “hostile takeover” of public hospitals by for-profit companies.

“This is nothing other than a panacea for corporate entities who want to target lesser institutions,’’ said Rep. Bill Hager, a Boca Raton Republican who voted against the measure.

Lawmakers are considering the bill after controversies that include a botched merger between publicly owned Bert Fish Medical Center in Volusia County and the private Adventist Health System. A judge rejected the merger after finding that the Bert Fish board violated the state’s Sunshine Law by holding a series of closed-door meetings to work on the deal.

Bill sponsor Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, pointed to the Bert Fish controversy as one reason for proposing the measure.

“The one that fell in my lap was Bert Fish,’’ Hooper said.

A similar Senate bill (SB 1448) is scheduled to be heard Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has announced that a commission will study the future of public hospitals, but Hooper said the House bill is not linked to that commission.

The bill, which still must get through another House committee, would require circuit-court approval of deals to lease or sell public hospitals that receive tax dollars. Delegal said that would include Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the North and South Broward hospital districts and the Halifax hospital district in Daytona Beach.

Some other public hospitals would not be affected, such as Lee Memorial Hospital in Lee County and Bay Medical Center in Bay County, according to a House staff analysis.

Under the bill, judges would have to consider a series of criteria in deciding whether to approve deals. That would include whether a deal reflects “fair-market value,’’ whether it will lead to a reduction or elimination of property taxes that support the hospital and whether it includes a commitment to quality care for people such as the poor and uninsured.

The committee Thursday did not hear public testimony because of a shortage of time. But along with the Safety Net Hospital Alliance, other groups that expressed opposition to the bill were the Florida Hospital Association, Jackson Memorial and the Broward hospital districts.

Joining Associated Industries in expressing support was Health Management Associates, a Naples-based hospital chain.

In a letter to lawmakers this week, Associated Industries rejected arguments that the bill is a ploy for investor-owned hospitals to take over public hospitals.

“HB 619 ensures no one, not public-hospital boards, investor-owned hospitals nor not-for-profit hospitals can game the system to the detriment of the community and the taxpayers,’’ Bishop wrote in the letter.


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