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    Legislators give GOP donor exemption

    Lawmakers give a developer the green light to bypass state review for adding new beds.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- A big-money Republican Party donor gained legislative approval Tuesday to sidestep costly state regulation and expand the hospital that serves his booming retirement development in Central Florida.

    The major beneficiary of the bill is Gary Morse, developer of The Villages, an 18,000-acre residential community that straddles three counties north of Orlando. Morse is a director of The Villages Regional Medical Center, a 60-bed hospital that will be allowed to add 180 beds under the bill.

    Voting mostly along party lines, the House passed the exemption 76-37 and sent it to Gov. Jeb Bush, who expressed reservations on the bill. The Senate previously approved it, 27-12. The sponsors are two Pinellas County Republicans, Sen. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island and Rep. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg.

    "Because the process, as we know, is so arduous and lengthy and expensive, this is a unique situation where a hospital has only a limited number of beds," Farkas said.

    The approved bill (SB 1568) carves out exemptions for two hospitals in fast-growing counties from a lengthy state review known as certificate of need, which is designed to control health care costs. The review is costly and can take years, and some Republicans say it frustrates free-market competition.

    The affected hospitals are The Villages Regional Medical Center in Sumter County and Florida Hospital in Flagler County. Sumter's population grew by 69 percent in the 1990s and Flagler's grew by 74 percent, far outpacing the statewide growth rate of 23.2 percent. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, who voted for the exemption, said the "clunky administrative process" can't keep up with such rapid growth.

    But the Flagler administrator, Daryl Tol, has said he wasn't seeking more beds, and he has referred to the legislation as "The Villages bill."

    Morse donated nearly $700,000, personally or through corporations, to Republican lawmakers and the party since 1999. A single Republican reception hosted by Morse's companies cost $58,823.63, campaign records show.

    Morse also rented his corporate jet to the party and candidates, including Bush, who flew his two sons to the 2002 Rose Bowl on the jet. The governor reimbursed Morse for the cost of equivalent commercial airline tickets, to comply with Florida law.

    Bush did not endorse the legislation Tuesday. He said he prefers a statewide streamlining of hospital-bed regulation to what he called "carve-outs," or exemptions for individual hospitals. A statewide bill has little chance of passage.

    "I would prefer no carve-outs at all," Bush said.

    Most Democrats voted against the bill, but Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, was the only Democrat who challenged Farkas in debate.

    "This bill circumvents the certificate of need process and is based on a campaign contribution to a particular political party," Bucher said. "In this instance, it only cost him $800,000 in campaign contributions to get 180 beds that circumvent the system. This is not good public policy. It's not how we're supposed to pass bills."

    Bucher was one of 35 Democrats who voted against the bill. Two Republicans, Reps. Heather Fiorentino of New Port Richey and Mitch Needleman of Melbourne, voted no, and three Democrats voted yes. They were Reps. Bob Henriquez of Tampa, Sheri McIinvale of Orlando and Ed Jennings of Gainesville.

    Any hospital expansion that does not go through a review by the state health care agency "gives me concerns," said Fiorentino, who serves on the board of Baypoint Regional Medical Center in Hudson. "I think the agency has the expertise, and they are the ones who should be making those decisions."

    -- Times staff writer Michael Sandler and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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