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    City, Bayfront settle suit

    The costly conflict that lasted more than a year ends with the hospital agreeing to be free of religious influence.

    By WES ALLISON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The St. Petersburg City Council voted to settle its lawsuit against Bayfront Medical Center on Tuesday, ending more than a year of closed-door negotiations and political posturing that began when the city learned the hospital was adhering to some Catholic doctrine.

    The council's unanimous vote came less than an hour after it convened in private to discuss the latest settlement proposal with Bayfront, a stark contrast to the drawn-out and fruitless sessions that dogged earlier attempts to end the dispute.

    The vote also came just 10 days after a new mayor and four new council members were sworn in.

    The final settlement differs little from offers Bayfront had made since ending its controversial relationship with the BayCare hospital alliance over the group's Catholic requirements. But insiders in both camps said City Hall -- especially Mayor Rick Baker -- was ready to put the matter to bed.

    "I did want to resolve it, and I know the council did, too," Baker said after shaking hands with Bayfront President and chief executive officer Sue Brody.

    "We've taken a good first step today in resolving this ongoing conflict, and we'll look for ways to work together."

    A federal judge still must sign off on the agreement, but both sides consider that a formality. Under its terms, Bayfront promises to be free of all religious influence and agrees it will not try to rejoin BayCare Health System without winning the city's approval.

    Brody, who has publicly and privately pushed for a settlement for months, said she was relieved the lawsuit will end. She estimated it has cost the hospital more than $1-million in legal fees.

    "This is obviously a new day in St. Petersburg," she said. "We've got a new mayor, we've got a new council, and I'm pleased."

    Bayfront is private, but it leases much of its land from the city for $10 a year. With the city's blessings, it joined five other area hospitals, including St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg, to form BayCare Health System in 1997 to consolidate services and save money.

    The deal ran into trouble in mid-1999, however, when city officials learned Bayfront quit providing abortions and made other changes to comply with the religious requirements of two Catholic partners.

    In March 2000, the City Council sued Bayfront on grounds the Catholic influence breached the separation of church and state. A coalition of women's and civil rights groups sued, too.

    Last fall, the council refused to sell Bayfront its land to end the church-state conflict, and Bayfront announced it would leave BayCare at the end of the year.

    Even so, the city refused to drop its lawsuit because, its attorneys and some council members said, it felt it had no legal assurance that Bayfront would remain free of Catholic influence.

    Tuesday's agreement is legally binding, meaning that if the city ever thinks the hospital is breaking any of the tenets, it can ask the court to intervene.

    Under the terms of the agreement approved Tuesday, Bayfront promises to remain free of all Catholic influence on its staff, policies, procedures and patients. It also gives Bayfront a year to finish settling its breakup with BayCare, but allows the hospital to maintain some business relations with the alliance.

    Bayfront no longer will receive risk management services from BayCare, which could cost the hospital about $200,000 a year, Brody said. But it will continue to purchase medical malpractice and professional insurance through a pool it joined with BayCare, which will save $3-million to $5-million a year.

    "That was very important for us to continue that," Brody said.

    Several council members said they were satisfied the agreement protects the city's interests.

    "It ends any glimmer there could possibly be out there in regards to religious entanglement," council member Richard Kriseman said.

    Chairwoman Rene Flowers said, "I think we'll now be able to put this under our belt and move on."

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