Bayfront Medical Center finds a partner 

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

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Bayfront spokeswoman Kanika Tomalin said the hospital only learned of the report 48 hours before it aired. She also said that Bayfront has come to its own independent and far-reaching “confident conclusion” that “the allegations are contrary to the evidence.”

“I immediately called [Tomalin] after the 60 Minutes episode was over and said ‘Look, I’m really disappointed that nobody indicated that this is going on,'” Gerdes told CL last week. “Whether you think there’s something to it or not, I would have liked to have known.”

Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he’s okay with what he’s heard so far on Bayfront’s end about the HMA story. “I did see that,” he told CL in reference to the 60 Minutes piece. “I don’t know if you’ve been to a doctor lately, but … we’re already being driven in that direction. I’m not shocked by that,” he said in reference to doctors performing numerous, possibly unnecessary proceedures.

Councilman Gerdes nevertheless said he wants the disclosure language in the new lease to be “very strong,” and agreed with Nurse’s suggestion that a Councilmember be part of the new joint Bayfront-HMA partnership.

Leaving aside the charges against HMA, a main concern about the partnership is what will happen to the charity care that Bayfront offers. The medical center has historically been a community leader in providing such care (approximately $35 million last year), and Bayfront officials insist that the amount of service to the indigent will not be cut back.

Dr. David Weiland, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Bayfront, said the word is that, “we will still be providing the exact same level of care.”

Theoretically, the purchase could be reviewed by a higher governmental power, but that’s doubtful. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission blocked only four such deals, contending that such consolidation was too much for one region.

There remains a strong emotional attachment to Bayfront in the community. It was the first St. Petersburg hospital to integrate with black patients, back when it was known as Mound Park in 1961. (Before that, African-Americans would only be admitted at St. Pete’s now-defunct Mercy Hospital.) The ties are deep and thick, and spokesperson Kanika Tomalin said this new agreement ensures that Bayfront can continue to be there for the indigent and less fortunate, saying the deal makes certain that the community will continue to have access to “the very best.”

Dr. Paul McRae was the first African-American to hold the title of Chief-of-Staff at Bayfront (2005-2011). He said the community shouldn’t be alarmed that a major, out of town health care organization (HMA is based in Naples) will be partnering with Bayfront. They should be grateful.

“Most of the free standing hospitals, particularly Bayfront and Tampa General, have had difficult times in order to deliver the same type of health care to the communities they serve,” he said.

Stand-alone hospitals have very little negotiating power in terms of buying medical supplies, equipment, and even pharmaceuticals when compared to corporate facilities. “Our operating expenses are going to be a lot lower in that regard,” said Emily Nipps, another Bayfront spokesperson.

But Steve Ullman, Professor and Director of Programs in Health Sector Management and Policy at the University of Miami School of Business, said in a partnership like this there could be a situation where, “there might be some services (currently offered) that are perceived to be not profit generating, so there could be an adjustment in the mix of services provided. And it may mean patients may need to get care for specific conditions that are not profit generating in other health care facilities.”

Ullman said one benefit for St. Pete is that nonprofit hospitals don’t pay property taxes, while for-profits do. He also said that most studies he’s seen show there’s not a “huge difference in the level of uncompensated care.”

There’s been an increase in similar partnerships since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which became the law of the land in 2010. Chicago Magazine reported that since the law passed, hospital mergers have increased by 45 percent. The ACA dictates an adjustment in Medicare payments to hospitals, providing another incentive for stand-alone facilities to team up with corporations.

Though the ACA remains extremely controversial in some quarters, those paying attention realize that action needed to be taken to bring down the costs of health care, lest it bankrupt individuals, businesses and eventually the government.

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