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Hospital workers see referendum as savior

Employees at Tarpon Springs' largest employer, Helen Ellis Memorial, see the affiliation with UCH as a way to help save the financially troubled hospital.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- Orthopedic surgeon John Sullivan strolled through the hallway, past nurses in a hurry and by patients waiting for knee surgery, and said he is ready for an upcoming vote to decide the hospital's fate.

"I'm excited about this thing coming through," Sullivan told a colleague who was passing by. Then he crossed his fingers and silently willed city residents to vote "yes" on two referendum questions related to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

For physicians and staffers at Helen Ellis, years of financial problems, a rocky relationship with the city and uncertainty about the future have all led up to this moment. On July 11, voters will decide whether the 168-bed hospital will affiliate itself with University Community Hospital.

If the affiliation goes through, Tampa-based UCH has vowed to pay $20-million, plus a $4-million loan, toward retiring Helen Ellis' bonds. If voters reject the deal, the hospital and the city will have to start over, and Helen Ellis will need a new partner to make it financially stable.

Administrators at Helen Ellis see the proposed affiliation with UCH as necessary to save the hospital, and they view UCH as a friendly savior. They say the only changes at Helen Ellis, which is the city of Tarpon Springs' largest employer, would be positive: an end to the hospital's financial crisis, improvement of some services and no major cutbacks in others.

"This is the right decision at the right time," said Lester Garner, president of the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation, which operates the hospital.

If residents have strong feelings about the arrangement, few have taken an opportunity to express them. At two recent public forums, only a handful of residents showed up to ask questions and listen to presentations. A third and final public forum will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at 400 N Walton Ave. in Tarpon Springs.

One of the few voices of dissent is the Health Facilities Authority. The group, a public financing board appointed by the city, raised some concerns at a recent meeting and in a letter to the city attorney.

Authority members want the lease between the city and UCH to address several specific issues. Among other things, they want UCH to be required to keep a certain minimum number of beds. They also want the lease to require various functions of the hospital to be operated out of the hospital's existing facilities, not somewhere else inside the hospital's service area.

City Attorney John Hubbard said he will try to have that language written into the lease, even though he thinks those issues already are addressed by the proposed lease.

It is unclear exactly what the future holds for the hospital if voters support the referendum questions.

People who have worked closely on the details of the affiliation say that most visible aspects of the hospital wouldn't change very much. The hospital would continue to offer many of the same services, including charity care, cardiac care, obstetrics and vascular services. It would remain a secular institution and would keep the Helen Ellis name.

The emergency room might be expanded in the next few years, said Calvin Glidewell, vice president of development for UCH. UCH and the hospital foundation would decide on other changes when creating long-term plans for the hospital, Glidewell said.

Helen Ellis' 689 employees are guaranteed to keep their jobs for at least six months. After that, nothing is assured. But Glidewell said he doesn't foresee any drastic changes in staffing levels.

Most of the changes would take place behind the scenes. UCH would be able to approve selection or removal of senior managers at Helen Ellis and would have final approval of major expenditures and all operating and capital budgets.

"I think the average person using the hospital won't notice a change, except the hospital won't be financially troubled anymore," said Hubbard, the city attorney.

Hospital administrators say Helen Ellis' financial problems arose from the cost of providing charity care to uninsured patients, as well as changes in Medicare and private insurance that cut into hospital revenues.

It wasn't always that way. The facility was known as Tarpon Springs Hospital when it opened in 1927. The two-story hospital, which cost $17,000 to construct, had 12 beds and a simple payment plan: a room with a bath cost $8 a day, use of an operating room cost $10 and anesthetic cost $10.

Through the years, the hospital has grown much bigger and more complex. The original hospital was expanded several times. In 1988, the hospital was renamed in honor of Helen Ellis, a volunteer for 25 years, a charter member of the hospital auxiliary and the wife of major hospital benefactor. In 1994, a four-story patient tower opened.

Later that year, the hospital foundation's relationship with the city became contentious. The hospital foundation wanted to team up with for-profit Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., but the city blocked the deal.

In 1995, voters soundly rejected a plan that would have given the city the authority to sell Helen Ellis.

The hospital foundation and the city ended up in a three-year legal fight over the roles of the Health Facilities Authority, the city and the foundation, which has operated the hospital since 1947. The legal fight ended in 1998 when a judge ruled the foundation could conduct its business in secret and that the foundation must give back all its assets to the city if the foundation dissolves.

But now, for the first time in years, the foundation and city officials want the same thing. In the days leading up to the referendum, there is widespread support for the affiliation within the city. City commissioners unanimously voted to support a 40-year lease agreement between the city and UCH last month and some commissioners are urging voters to support the referendum issues.

They see UCH, which has two campuses in Tampa, as a solid organization with a style and objectives compatible with Helen Ellis. City officials say they like that UCH is a small hospital group, not a giant company like Columbia/HCA, and that it has performed well financially even while other hospitals are struggling or closing.

"We are pleased to welcome UCH into our community," Mayor Frank DiDonato said at a public forum last week. "I believe it is a bond that will only get stronger."

For many on the staff at Helen Ellis, July 11 can't come fast enough. After the City Commission approved the proposed lease, workers rushed to put a sign on the Helen Ellis property urging voters to approve the referendum.

"I never saw the maintenance guys work so fast," said hospital administrator Joe Kiefer. "Everyone is very excited. They just want this thing over with."

- Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4205 or at gazella@sptimes.com.

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