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    A Times Editorial

    Risky hospital politics

    The dispute between St. Petersburg and Bayfront Medical Center is down to nothing but bad alternatives. Many people have failed here, but Mayor David Fischer is the one to hold responsible.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    More than a year has passed since the city of St. Petersburg and Bayfront Medical Center squared off over the question of religious entanglement in a quasi-public hospital, and where has this high-powered fight taken us? What do we have to show for the City Council histrionics, the initial ill-tempered responses of hospital executives, the lawsuits, the court-ordered mediation, the legal bills, the national notoriety?

    Essentially, nothing.

    With the latest round of mediation having been declared a bust, the city and the hospital are headed this week toward what will likely be another public spectacle. The hospital wants to present its latest proposal Thursday to a council that has shown itself unwilling to consider any reasonable offer. Mayor David Fischer, the one who is supposed to provide leadership and answers, leaves the council with what he himself acknowledges are only bad alternatives.

    Consider the choices: Should the hospital be forced to drop its affiliation with the non-profit BayCare Health System alliance, which includes Catholic hospital members, a move that could threaten Bayfront's financial survival in this uncertain health care environment? Or should the city sell its land to the hospital tenant? That could resolve the legal issues, but it also would break any government ties to, and potential public influence on, a hospital the public originally built and once operated.

    How could it have come to this? Are we really prepared to allow narrow agendas to jeopardize the future of one of this community's most important medical assets?

    The question of whether Bayfront's medical decisions can be influenced by the Catholic religious directives that all the BayCare partners agreed to accept is a fair one. But that is not what has charged this debate. The two explosive elements, the ones that still hinder honest resolution, are trust and abortion. In the beginning, the hospital entered into the BayCare agreement without adequately informing the city. Worse, its executives initially stonewalled the public when first asked to respond -- violating the city's trust. Since the beginning, the only medical service that was affected by the religious directives was a handful of elective abortions -- just the word "abortion" created headlines and hysteria.

    Nearly a year later, the hospital appears to have made true progress in resolving the issues of trust. The city, however, is still stuck on abortion and the politics that surround it.

    In fact, at this point, the city lease dispute has grown into a question of such political seduction that four national women's and civil rights groups have filed suit. And Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women didn't get involved because they want to assure that Bayfront remains a viable community medical institution. Their agenda is considerably more narrow: abortion.

    "We see this as a very important breaking issue that's going to have to be addressed by the courts," said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, joined the suit. "Our lawsuit is intended to make sure that the constitutional guidelines are met by both of the other parties."

    So here we are. We have a hospital that has faithfully served its city's residents, including the poorest among us, that joined a consortium to try to ensure its financial health, and, in doing so, joined hands with another caring institution, the Catholic-based St. Anthony's Hospital. It agreed to respect Catholic directives as a trade-off, partly because it knew the only effect would be on a procedure that was performed only about three times a year. And now the city and Bayfront could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Many people have failed here, many have gotten so wrapped up in abortion and constitutional scripture that they have neglected to see the good that Bayfront is providing each day in its community. But the person St. Petersburg has to hold responsible is the one who is in charge. The circumstances were never ideal, and the hospital badly hurt its credibility by its arrogant reaction in the beginning. But this problem was soluble, and Mayor Fischer didn't get it done.

    Fischer let a peevish council control the public debate and the lawyers control the policy. He has joined the negotiating table as of late, but his contribution is barely visible. The city and its main hospital are about to destroy something that has served St. Petersburg for more than three decades, and it is happening on David Fischer's watch. Has this really been worth it?

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