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Legislators back giving county money to TGH

Both chambers endorse diverting up to $6.5-million to the hospital. Commissioners are exploring a lawsuit.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- For months, financially strapped Tampa General Hospital has been the subject of studies, all-day meetings and promises to create a tax package.

But with a week to go before the Legislature adjourns, state lawmakers grew tired of talk.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate tacked amendments onto bills that would require the Hillsborough County Commission to divert as much as $6.5-million in county funds to help the formerly public hospital on Davis Islands.

Both amendments sailed through each chamber Monday without debate and should pass handily before the Legislature goes home Friday, legislators said.

"This is way too important," said state Rep. Sandy Murman, R-Tampa, who crafted the language to help the hospital. "We need to save the hospital."

The bill will come as a blessing to Tampa General, which has lost about $30-million since it changed from a public hospital to a private non-profit in 1997. Without some taxpayer aid, hospital executives say they might have to cut some of Tampa General's money-losing medical services, like its burn unit and Level 1 trauma center, which treats two-thirds of all medical emergencies in Hillsborough.

The $6.5-million would comefrom a reserve fund set aside for the county's health care program for the poor. That reserve was built up from a sales tax authorized by the Legislature.

On top of the county money, Tampa General also stands to get a total of $23-million in state funds this year.

About $5-million will come out of the Board of Regents' budget to pay TGH for training medical students, Murman said. An additional $17.4-million will flow through a Medicaid program to benefit hospitals that see a disproportionate share of poor patients. An additional $800,000 will help pay TGH for its trauma center.

But the bill promises to pit the Legislature against the Hillsborough County Commission, which has asked its attorney to explore a lawsuit against the Legislature over the issue.

"I am appalled at this kind of action when we have stressed the importance of home rule," Commissioner Tom Scott said late Monday.


"I am appalled at this kind of action when we have stressed the importance of home rule."

- Tom Scott, Hillsborough county commissioner


County Commissioner Chris Hart and Deputy County Administrator Pat Bean flew to Tallahassee last week to persuade legislators to back down. The commission says it wants to give the hospital the money, but on the commission's terms.

Those terms would require Tampa General to give the commission regular financial reports and appoint two new members to the hospital's 14-member board. The new members would have to come from a pool of nominees selected by county commissioners, using a method designed to evade Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine laws.

Last week, commissioners assured legislators that they were doing their part back home in Tampa. They passed a plan to give TGH local tax money, but it came with so many conditions that it appeared to have no chance of being accepted by the hospital.

TGH's private board will still consider the proposal, but they don't seem in a rush to vote on it. Hospital spokesman John Dunn said the hospital's bylaws require it to wait 48 hours, until at least Wednesday, to hold a meeting to discuss the proposal.

By that time, the Legislature will probably have already passed bills forcing the commission to give TGH the money.

"We have no way of policing the arrangement once we leave session," state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said. "If something were to fall apart, it is the hospital that loses."

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

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