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St. Petersburg's Universal Health Care faces liquidation hearing

Universal Health Care's bid to remain afloat took a serious hit Wednesday.

Florida insurance regulators confirmed they have referred the troubled St. Petersburg Medicare provider to the state Division of Rehabilitation and Liquidation for delinquency proceedings. A spokeswoman for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said there would be no further comment on the company's status.

The division is part of the Florida Department of Financial Services, which oversees any delinquent insurer placed in receivership.

Universal, which has up to 1,000 employees in downtown St. Petersburg, has been scrambling to find a buyer to survive a barrage of regulatory concerns and customer defections.

"We are working very diligently on multiple fronts to achieve (a) constructive solution," Dr. A.K. Desai, Universal's CEO, said in response to an email from the Tampa Bay Times. "We are committed to take care of our members and their needs, which is our highest priority."

Founded in 2002 by Desai, Universal Health Care was one of the fastest-growing companies in St. Petersburg, offering Medicare plans in 20 states.

Over the past year, however, its troubles mounted. During the critical fall re-enrollment period for Medicare, potential customers received warning letters from federal regulators notifying them the company had received poor marks for three years in a row. The company agreed to stop selling policies in Georgia and Ohio late last year after state regulators there cited concerns over the company's relatively low reserves compared with its rising losses. Last month, it stopped marketing its Medicare services in all areas and began looking for a buyer.

MBF Healthcare Partners, a private equity fund based in Coral Gables, initially cut a deal to buy Universal. After that deal fell through, Dr. Kiran Patel, a well-known Tampa cardiologist and philanthropist, stepped in to bail out the company.

Despite some pushback from Universal's bank, BankUnited, and now Florida regulators, Patel remained committed to a deal.

"There is always a chance for pushing forward, and we should do so," Patel said Wednesday. "It's a challenging situation (but) I still feel confident that given the opportunity I can bring this to a resolution."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

St. Petersburg's Universal Health Care faces liquidation hearing 02/06/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 12:04am]
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