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TGH bill has officials fuming

County commissioners are stunned to learn of a bill that would remove their control over aid to the hospital.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TAMPA -- It was the end of a marathon, seven-hour session.

The County Commission had spent all Wednesday crafting a proposal to give Tampa General Hospital millions in taxpayer money while also holding the hospital accountable to the public.

Then County Administrator Dan Kleman opened his mouth.

As the commission was meeting, he said, state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, had introduced an amendment to a bill in Tallahassee that would remove the commission's control over county funds flowing to Tampa General.

And there was more: Tampa General's lobbyists had written the amendment, Kleman said.

"Let me make sure I heard you," Commissioner Tom Scott replied, stunned.

"We talk about trust. We hear (the hospital) say trust me, trust us," Scott said, as he banged his hand on the commission's dias so hard it shook. "And the whole time someone is up in Tallahassee lobbying against our position."

The news came as the commission agreed 6-1 to an offer that would give Tampa General about $7-million in local and federal tax dollars, as well as a lien law that will likely be challenged immediately in court.

The offer would require TGH to give the Commission monthly financial reports if six of seven commissioners declared a fiscal emergency at the hospital. The commission would be able to approve the form of the reports.

The private non-profit hospital board would also have to add two people to its board from a list of 14 people nominated by commissioners.

The terms are part of a deal to help the financially strapped hospital, which has lost nearly $30-million since it converted to a private non-profit from a public hospital in 1997. The commission got so bogged down in the deal's details that it canceled a scheduled meeting with the Planning Commission and sent a consultant, scheduled to make a presentation, back to the Midwest without making his presentation.

Hospital board chairman H.L. Culbreath said the hospital's board would consider the commission's proposal, but it appeared unlikely Wednesday it would be adopted.

"There seems to be very little trust," Culbreath said.

Hospital board member Jeremy Ross told the commission point-blank that TGH couldn't agree to certain points in the proposal. For one, the hospital did not want to formally guarantee that it would appoint new board members from the commission's nominees.

Also, the hospital opposes giving the commission monthly financial reports, but agreed to quarterly reports.

The latest quarterly report actually shows TGH did slightly better because of a one-time $4.2-million payment adjustment from the federal government. TGH actually made $2.9-million this fiscal quarter, bringing its overall losses so far this year to $6.3-million.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers were approving legislation that would give TGH more money -- with no strings attached -- if the commission does not act. The bill would take about $6.5-million from the county's coffers and give it to TGH.

Without the commission's approval, TGH could then put the county money into a Medicaid program that would match local tax dollars with federal tax dollars.

Sebesta, the senator who sponsored the amendment, could not be reached for comment.

But Sebesta's amendment stunned commissioners, who authorized the county attorney to research taking the Legislature to court over the bill.

"We are working hard here . . . and folks are sticking needles in our eyes," Commissioner Ronda Storms said.

Tampa General's lobbyist, Jan Gorrie, said she did not write the amendment, which the Senate Fiscal Resource Committee passed Wednesday. She said she suggested language to clean up a legal issue in the bill, but she said her exact wording wasn't adopted.

County lobbyist Helen Levine said that's not what happened.

Originally, both the county and the hospital agreed that language needed to be changed slightly for legal reasons. But in cleaning up the bill, Gorrie suggested an amendment that would do much more. With a few words, it would eliminate the commission's control over giving TGH county funds.

Levine said the amendment passed in a Senate committee Wednesday looked nearly identical to language Gorrie crafted.

"I would not have written it that way," said Levine, who was not consulted.

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