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Robert Trigaux: Cog in larger investigations, Bayfront Health loses control of its destiny

What did Bayfront Health step in?

That nose-pinching aroma starting to spread around the once independent Bayfront Hospital in downtown St. Petersburg comes courtesy of its majority owner of the past nine months: Health Management Associates of Naples.

Even before taking an 80 percent stake in Bayfront, HMA suffered allegations that, among other things, doctors were pressured with admission quotas to help fill the chain's hospital beds. The CBS investigative TV show 60 Minutes aired those claims, denied by HMA, in late 2012.

Not to worry, senior Bayfront officials insisted while visiting the Tampa Bay Times before the HMA deal was finalized. Bayfront did its homework and picked a top-notch parent in HMA.

Since then allegations have snowballed against HMA. An expanding federal whistle-blower investigation is under way by both the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission into claims of kickbacks at the company. Unsealed lawsuits are raising a fresh wave of accusations.

Among them: A complaint unsealed Jan. 6 alleges ex-HMA chief executive officer Gary Newsome had a "personal and direct involvement" in his company pushing emergency room staff to increase hospital admissions. That complaint, filed in South Carolina by former hospital executives, was joined by the Justice Department.

Curiously, by the time these allegations surfaced, CEO Newsome was long gone. Last summer, he retired from HMA. Not to hit the links in Naples but rather to head a Mormon mission in Uruguay, far from the mire in which HMA finds itself stuck.

That's hardly all of HMA's woes. So far, the feds have intervened in nine whistle-blower cases filed in at least five states alleging HMA paid doctors in exchange for referrals to its hospitals as well as illegally seeking to boost admissions from its emergency rooms.

Let's add another layer.

Amid its own turmoil, HMA agreed to a $3.9 billion takeover by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems. HMA shareholders last week approved that deal, which should be completed in the coming months.

At this point, it's almost amusing that the hospital chain Bayfront says it once carefully vetted stands accused by so many of such questionable behavior.

In less than a year, Bayfront went from independent local hospital to HMA captive, and now to a small cog in a deal creating the largest U.S. hospital chain by number of hospitals and No. 2 by revenue.

Nurses across the country protested the merger, alleging equipment shortages and price gouging of patients.

A study by National Nurses United found six of the nine most expensive hospitals in the country are part of Community Health and HMA.

That's probably not what Bayfront had envisioned for its future. Nor is it what the city of St. Petersburg anticipated for the hospital, a longtime provider to the poor, that operates on city-owned land.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

Robert Trigaux: Cog in larger investigations, Bayfront Health loses control of its destiny 01/13/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014 7:17pm]
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