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Two hospitals sue, say state favored donor

The suit claims lawmakers helped a GOP donor sidestep costly regulation and expand the hospital he directs.

ALISA ULFERTS
Published September 13, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Two neighboring medical centers have challenged a state law that granted a regulatory loophole to a third hospital affiliated with a major Republican donor.

Ocala Regional Medical Center and Munroe Regional Medical Center sued the state this week, saying a bill sponsored by two Pinellas County Republican lawmakers was unconstitutional because it specifically helped the Villages Regional Hospital.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island and Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, helped Republican Party donor Gary Morse gain approval to sidestep costly state regulation and expand the hospital that serves his booming retirement development in Central Florida.

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

John Simons, an attorney for Munroe Regional Medical Center, which also wants to expand, said the medical center just wants the Villages to "follow the same procedures as everyone else." Farkas said the bill was not intended to help any specific hospital. Rather, it's intended to help fast-growing communities keep pace with the number of hospital beds they need, he said.

The bill lawmakers passed and Gov. Jeb Bush signed 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 Hospital 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.

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