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Legislature set to relax rules for two hospitals

Critics say the proposal benefits a GOP donor. One of the hospitals didn't request the move.

By MICHAEL SANDLER and LUCY MORGAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 27, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers are poised to allow two hospitals to bypass a complex and expensive state law regulating hospital expansion, though both are brand new and one hospital didn't even ask for help.

The Republican-led Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to allow a 300 percent expansion of a hospital near a booming Sumter County development -- a development owned by one of the state's leading GOP donors.

The House Health Care Committee sent a similar bill to the House speaker, setting up a likely vote by the full House soon.

Critics said the proposal smacks of political favoritism. But top Republican lawmakers see this as a move toward toppling what they see as an antiquated process that tramples on the free market.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, are sponsoring the bills. They say urgent expansion is needed in high growth counties served by one acute care hospital.

But Florida Hospital in Flagler County is new, doesn't need more beds and never asked lawmakers to authorize any, said hospital administrator Daryl Tol.

Adventist Health System recently completed the 81-bed facility, and while the area's rapid growth might require expansion sooner than expected, his office never asked for special treatment, Tol said.

"Doesn't mean we wouldn't be happy about it," Tol said. "Honestly, we found out about it very recently -- yesterday."

Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, who represents Flagler County, said Florida Hospital was included in the bill so it doesn't appear to benefit one hospital backed by a Republican donor.

He was referring to Villages Regional Medical Center, which opened last year with 60 beds near the booming retirement community of the same name.

Gary Morse, who is a director at the hospital, gave nearly $700,000, in his own name or through his companies, to many Republican lawmakers and the party since 1999.

Tol referred to the legislation as "the Villages bill" even though it includes his hospital.

Several Democratic legislators complained Wednesday that such special treatment would undermine a system established decades ago to control costs and prevent market saturation.

The process regulates how many hospital beds, nursing homes, cardiac surgery units and other medical facilities may be established in certain areas. Some say that keeps doctors from setting up clinics that serve only wealthy areas.

"We shouldn't legislate this and give it to favorite friends," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach. She was one of four house members to vote against the bill supported by 16 other members.

Bucher and Sen. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines, questioned the sudden urgency. They wondered why Villages Regional Medical Center did not request more beds before it opened last year.

"How is it in eight months they need a 300 percent increase?" asked Wasserman-Schultz.

Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein of Delray Beach said he would consider changing the hospital review process, possibly adding a fast-track provision for special cases. But he said a blanket exception does nothing to address quality of care.

"They are just saying, we made a mistake in bed count," Klein said. "By creating a special rule for one hospital, I think you are undermining the whole regulatory process."

Jones said he never has been a fan of the process because it takes too long and looks back on the past 12 months, instead of forward. He would rather let the free market dictate the need, and he supports abandoning the process altogether. Senate President Jim King agrees.

"You would find a good number of Republicans who would like to see an end of the certificate of need process," King said. "It's a restraint of trade or turf protector, but every time it comes up there is a roar from the constituency of the haves."

Jones does not see why a developer who spent $20-million on roads and buildings in the area should have to go through so much bureaucracy to provide health care in the community. He understands the perception that Morse is getting a political favor.

"That would have to be a perception, rather than a reality," Jones said.

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