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    Bills would let hospitals bypass law

    Two lawmakers offer legislation to allow two medical facilities to expand without a review required by law, benefiting a GOP donor.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER and LUCY MORGAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 26, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- Two Tampa Bay area lawmakers are helping one of the state's leading Republican donors bypass a cumbersome and expensive process required by state law to expand a hospital in the middle of the state.

    Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, want to allow a hospital near a booming retirement development in Sumter County to grow by 300 percent without applying for a certificate of need with the Agency for Health Care Administration.

    That process, which can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, is designed to avoid saturating the state with hospital beds, which can increase health care costs.

    The lawmakers say the legislation is needed to provide access to health care in a fast-growing region in the state.

    Both bills will be heard today. Jones will present his bill on the floor of the Senate, Farkas at the House Health Care Committee he heads.

    The two bills also would allow a Flagler County hospital to expand without the normal review, but that's a ruse to make it appear to not benefit one hospital, a local lawmaker said. But the most prominent beneficiary of the legislation would be Gary Morse, who developed an 18,000-acre retirement community that spans three counties and is a director of one of the hospitals seeking expansion.

    The Villages is large enough to have a hospital that shares the name -- Villages Regional Medical Center, which opened last year and is seeking to expand by 300 percent, from 60 beds to 240.

    Morse has clout with state and national lawmakers. He contributed nearly $700,000, in his own name or through his companies, to many Republican candidates, as well as the Republican Party, since 1999. His donation list includes President George W. Bush, Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. President Jim King, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Jones.

    Morse could not be reached for comment.

    Florida Hospital in Flagler County also would be allowed to add 180 beds from its current capacity of 81 beds. But Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, who represents Flagler County, said the Villages is driving this legislation.

    "It is primarily a bill for Sumter County and the new hospital that has opened near the Villages," Wiles said. "I'm not a big proponent of tearing apart the certificate of need system."

    Wiles said he was unaware the Flagler hospital needed legislative help to expand and worries what this exception would do to the process. He said Flagler was included as a cover to help the Villages hospital.

    Jones, who said he is opposed to the cumbersome hospital review process, acknowledged that Morse will benefit from the bill. But so will residents, who otherwise would have to drive to Ocala or Eustis for medical attention, Jones added.

    Jones said the Villages has no direct competition and the hospital will be a service to the community.

    "It's one of the largest developments in all of Florida -- ranked fourth-largest master planned community in Florida," Jones said, citing Florida Trend magazine. "Clearly this is a unique area where growth is."

    Added Farkas: "It's an access to care issue, as far as we see it. It would take so long to get a replacement hospital or build a new hospital. We are just trying to open the window to all."

    The Florida Hospital Association said that window exists, if they want to play by the same rules as all other hospitals.

    Ralph Glatfelter, a lobbyist for the FHA, said the certificate of need process is designed to keep costs down and maintain quality care throughout the state.

    "I have never heard of a hospital that had been opened for less than seven months that needed a 300 percent increase in bed size," Glatfelter said. "I think that is very unusual."

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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