Bayfront Medical Center finds a partner 

Officials say a proposed merger will benefit the hospital and the community, but some aren’t so sure.

On Oct. 25 of last year, Sue Brody, the president and CEO of St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Medical Center, announced that the hospital was going corporate after more than a century as a non-profit. Bayfront plans to join health care giant Health Management Associates, Inc. (HMA), which will purchase 80 percent of the hospital and make it the hub of a regional group of six smaller hospitals that will span from Hernando County to the north all the way down to Port Charlotte.

The announcement was the culmination of a search that Bayfront began in earnest approximately two years ago, when the board of directors realized that it would be in the best interests of themselves and the community to begin looking at what Bayfront officials call a “strategic partnership.” (They shun the term “merger.”) With major changes coming to the health care industry thanks to the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as other trends making it increasingly difficult for stand-alone hospitals to be successful, a partnership seems like a good way for the 106-year-old medical facility, located at Sixth Avenue South and Sixth Street, to survive deep into the 21st Century.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a final deal being presented to the St. Pete City Council, which gets final say on any merger because the facility sits on city property. HMA was the subject of a December 2012 expose on CBS’s 60 Minutes, during which reporter Steve Kroft told America that the venerable news program interviewed more than 100 current and former employees and, “we heard a similar story over and over: that HMA relentlessly pressured its doctors to admit more and more patients — regardless of medical need — in order to increase revenues.”

The segment featured interviews with emergency room doctors, including Jeff Hamby, an Arkansas-based ER physician who said he was fired for not meeting admission targets, and is now suing an HMA-owned hospital for wrongful termination. Kroft also spoke to the health care giant’s former compliance director, Paul Meyer, a 30-year FBI veteran, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit saying the company improperly admitted Medicare patients. (HMA countersued Meyer, saying he was fired for insubordination, and alleging that he took confidential documents and has refused to return them.)

At a City Council workshop on Jan. 17, Councilman Wengay Newton challenged Bayfront officials about the HMA allegations, indicating that he thought they were less than fully candid about the report.

“I wonder what else the Council should know?” he asked. “I can’t pose a blind eye. I don’t care if it was in Pennsylvania or the Soviet Union. I’m going to have to ask the tough questions.”

While Bayfront officials and Council members acknowledge that there have been regular consultations over the past year, leading up to a final document being presented, Councilman Charlie Gerdes said he didn’t like the fact that the 60 Minutes report was not mentioned to him or his colleagues at a meeting just a week before it was broadcast.


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