Hospital loss a scary thought

Retirees rally to keep South Bay from moving 8 miles north.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 31, 2007

SUN CITY CENTER -- Grim Reaper worked the crowd. Hot dogs and sodas were on sale outside.

But the 1,000 retired residents streaming into the community hall Tuesday morning came to fight, not to socialize. Most of them arrived ready to battle for their hospital.

In a showdown between two hospitals for the booming population of south Hillsborough County, the senior residents of Sun City Center and adjacent Kings Point fear that they'll be the casualties.

HCA of Nashville, Tenn., has asked state officials to move its 112-bed South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center to Big Bend Road in Riverview, about 8 miles north. It promises to leave behind an emergency room and diagnostic services in Sun City Center.

St. Joseph's Hospital has a competing application to build a 90-bed facility on Big Bend Road to tap into the area's residential growth.

Both hospitals' officials made their case Tuesday before a packed hall of residents and a representative from the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which is expected to issue a decision in mid December.

But most of the retirees who spoke implored South Bay not to leave.

"The hospital was a major purchasing decision for many of us to relocate here," Forrest Davis said well into the three-hour meeting. By then, a fatigued Grim Reaper took a seat, still holding a sign that read "If South Bay goes away the Grim Reaper is here to stay."

Echoing many residents, Davis said he and his wife decided to retire to the community because of South Bay's location on State Road 674.

"At our age, life depends on how quickly one can get to the hospital in an emergency," Davis said.

Residents worry that doctors will close their offices and follow South Bay up the road if it moves. They also stressed concerns about how volunteers and patients' relatives would reach the new site. Many now make the short trip to South Bay on golf carts because they no longer drive.

They questioned what would happen if a gravely ill retiree needs to be admitted from the stand-alone emergency room to an intensive care unit. An ambulance drive up traffic-clogged U.S. 301 could feel like a lifetime.

"Do you think I'm going to tell the ambulance, 'Oh, take him to the Big Bend site?'" resident Helen Cooper asked. "My husband will die in that 6 miles."

South Bay chief executive officer Stephen Daugherty told residents that the hospital would work with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the community's volunteer emergency squad to transport patients from the emergency room to the Big Bend hospital. It would also run a shuttle service to help volunteers and patients' relatives get to the new site, he said.

South Bay needs to relocate the hospital from its current home on 17 acres to the 60-acre Big Bend site because it has no room to grow, he said.

"The answer is simple: The campus is too small," Daugherty said.

The new location would allow the hospital to expand surgical, cancer treatment and pediatric service for new residents and Sun City Center retirees.

"Let me be clear when I say South Bay Hospital is committed to Sun City Center," he said.

But St. Joseph's chief executive officer, Isaac Mallah, questioned Daugherty's explanations.

For one, he said, other landlocked hospitals with much older buildings have refurbished their facilities without moving.

Mallah also noted that while his hospital is nonprofit, South Bay's corporate owner was more interested in the bottom line than the needs of Sun City Center.

Two years ago, South Bay applied to the state to build a hospital at Big Bend Road but was turned down. The state ruled that the area couldn't support two hospitals so close together.

Mallah accused South Bay of reapplying in September to beat back St. Joseph's attempt to build on its Big Bend property.

"This is about keeping competition out of this marketplace," Mallah said.

Paul Wheat of Sun City Center said he agrees the Big Bend area needs its own hospital.

"But it shouldn't come about at the expense of our community losing patient services," he said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.