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TGH president's future in doubt

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000


Siegel
TAMPA -- Tampa General Hospital president Bruce Siegel, facing millions of dollars in losses and eroding political support after promising to make the former public hospital profitable, is quietly talking about his possible resignation.

Siegel and some members of the private board that runs the hospital have not reached a decision about his future. Buying out his contract, which expires in July 2001, could cost the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Siegel, 39, declined to comment. Hospital spokesman John Dunn said, "There is nothing to comment on at this point."

The hospital board must decide whether the price of Siegel's departure will be worth the political support it may gain.

Hospital board members say they need local and state help to survive, but state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this week he cannot support state dollars for the hospital as long as Siegel is in charge.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, who is sponsoring a $10-million appropriations request for TGH, thinks the perception that Siegel is the cause of the hospital's problems has become an insurmountable problem in the Legislature.

"There is an old saying in politics, "It's not what you have done, it's what people think you have done,' " Sebesta said. "Unfortunately, there are many people who think Dr. Siegel is the cause of the problems. I don't think he alone is the cause of the problems by any stretch of the imagination. It just happened on his watch."

State Rep. Sandy Murman, R-Tampa, who is sponsoring companion legislation to Sebesta's bill, said: "I think there is a consensus building in the community that a management change will help the hospital go in the right direction."

County Commissioner Jan Platt said a hospital board member told her recently that major changes were afoot that would make her happy. The board member would not say what those changes were, she said.

Talk of Siegel's resignation has heated up in the three weeks since a private board meeting where he announced that the hospital had lost $6-million in the last three months of 1999. On hand were executives from Financial Security Assurance, the New York company that insures $149-million in hospital bonds.

Last year, the company criticized Siegel's management in a letter to the private board, saying hospital executives were unable to cope with mounting financial losses. Since the hospital turned private, it has lost more than $23-million, but board members have publicly supported Siegel.

If the hospital keeps losing money, the bond insurer can call in a consultant to recommend cuts or even take over TGH if the hospital misses a bond payment, something it has never done.

At the last meeting, board members asked Siegel to prepare a plan for Tampa General's short-term future.

"The welfare of this institution and the community have to be more important than any one person -- that's the bottom line," said Jay Wolfson, who resigned from the TGH board last year.

County commissioners have lost confidence in Siegel since he led the campaign to turn the public hospital into a private, non-profit institution.

Siegel pledged to open new clinics for the poor. Instead, he closed four clinics. He said the hospital didn't need the power it enjoyed as a public hospital to impose liens on patients. After it went private, Siegel announced that restoring the lien power was critical. He promised to close the hospital on Davis Islands and open a $153-million research center near the University of South Florida. Last year, he abandoned that plan.

And then there are the losses, which privatization was supposed to have stopped.

"Right now, my confidence level in Tampa General is about zero," said Sen. Lee.

Siegel's effort to restore the lien power was undermined when he told federal prosecutors in 1998 that two county commissioners tried to pressure him into giving a contract to businessman David Bekhor. The entire County Commission was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury, but the investigation ended last year with no indictments.

Federal prosecutors reopened the investigation a few months later after the St. Petersburg Times revealed new links between the commissioners and Bekhor. A grand jury is investigating.

If Siegel were fired, his contract requires he be paid two years' salary -- about $670,000. If he quit on his own, he would get nothing. The contract doesn't address what he would be paid if he resigned at the board's request.

Siegel's supporters say Tampa General's problems are rooted in forces bigger than any one person. Just as Siegel took over, the federal government began dramatically reducing what health care programs pay hospitals to treat the poor.

"They can't manufacture money," said Jeremy Ross, a TGH board member who thinks it would be a mistake for Siegel to leave.

Siegel has trimmed about $38-million from the hospital's budget since fiscal year 1996 and saw the hospital's rating from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Organizations improve dramatically in 1999.

"I believe that the hospital desperately needs an administrator of his capabilities in this period, that his absence from this position will potentially lead to further losses," Ross said.

But, Ross added, "If public funding will be made available in necessary amounts only as a result of his departure, then I understand. I am enough of a political realist to understand that competence alone can sometimes not sustain a person's position."

-- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or at karp@sptimes.com.

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