Helen Ellis' future brightens
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000
A rocky era hopefully came to an end Friday in Tarpon Springs with the takeover of city-owned Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital by non-profit University Community Hospital of Tampa.
Such a positive outcome hardly could have been forecast five years ago, when a stunned community learned that the private foundation that leased and operated Helen Ellis had made a secret deal to turn over the hospital's operations to for-profit giant Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then.
Angry city officials, who learned of the pact only after a letter of intent between Columbia and the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation had been signed, scrambled to learn about and eventually squash the deal. They didn't trust Columbia or the foundation and feared the city would lose control of the institution that had brought health care to North Pinellas since 1927.
The city and the hospital foundation then embarked on what amounted to a years-long legal slugfest in which the city sought to assert control of its property and a voice in the hospital's future direction, while the foundation labored to hold on to the reins. Hospital officials contended that unless they were allowed to control their own destiny and affiliate with a partner such as Columbia that could bring in more patients, the hospital could go out of business.
With the Columbia deal killed and the legal skirmishes continuing, the hospital began to bleed financially and there was no way to quickly staunch the flow. Workers were laid off, doctors went elsewhere to practice and patients understandably stayed away. The foundation's prediction of a closed hospital might soon have come true if not for UCH.
Earlier this year the hospital foundation and UCH reached a privately negotiated affiliation agreement in which UCH became the sole member of a newly constituted Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation, which will lease and operate the hospital and keep it non-profit. In a July 11 referendum, voters approved a 40-year lease of the hospital property to the new foundation.
So Friday, the UCH era began.
UCH of Tampa is growing and financially stable, despite a rough-and-tumble health care marketplace that chews up hospitals and spits them out. It is hoped that UCH has the wherewithal to save Helen Ellis -- in fact, UCH officials have said they expect Helen Ellis to be operating in the black within months. And despite some unfortunate and highly publicized medical lapses in recent years, UCH also is generally regarded as competent and professional in the delivery of medical care to patients.
The North Pinellas community owes a debt of gratitude to a number of people who brought about this new opportunity for success at Helen Ellis:
To several former city officials, most notably former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis, who refused to knuckle under to the foundation's demands to affiliate with Columbia/HCA and kept up the pressure on the foundation to be more open. Though they sometimes personalized the battle too much, if not for their efforts, Helen Ellis could today be under the control of a for-profit hospital chain that has been accused of illegal and unethical business dealings;
To current members of the City Commission, who recognized that unless the fighting ended and reasonableness prevailed, Helen Ellis could fail;
To City Attorney John Hubbard and city health care consultant Gerry Busch. They had the enormously difficult job of negotiating a new lease with UCH that would protect the community's financial and medical interests while still maximizing Helen Ellis' opportunity for success;
To the employees of Helen Ellis who stayed on the job and cared for patients even when resources were strained and the future looked bleak. The hospital's almost 700 employees are guaranteed jobs for only six months under UCH.
Because of all of those people, North Pinellas and South Pasco residents will continue to have available to them a non-profit, acute-care hospital providing emergency and charity care. They will not have to face driving farther north into Pasco County or south to Clearwater or Dunedin if they need hospital treatment.
The city of Tarpon Springs will receive at least $250,000 a year in rent and at the end of the lease term, the hospital facilities and equipment will revert to the city.
UCH gains some things, too, not the least of which is access to tens of thousands of patients in the booming North Pinellas/South Pasco area and the opportunity to give Morton Plant Mease some competition.
However, if anything has been learned from the past five years, it is that Tarpon Springs officials and residents cannot afford to let down their guard when it comes to their hospital.
UCH promises financial health for Helen Ellis, but the city needs to watch the numbers and ask questions if the diagnosis isn't good. UCH promises more openness, but it is still a private organization with no obligation to share records beyond the most basic financial reports. UCH says it wants Helen Ellis to remain a full-service, community-based heath care institution, but residents and officials alike should be alert to any indication that determination is waning.
For now, everyone's intentions seem good. So here's a toast (with Evian, of course) to a brighter future for Helen Ellis.
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