ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly 40 years after opening its doors, Edward White Hospital will close in November amid another year of empty beds and a multimillion-dollar shortfall.
It will be the first Florida hospital to close since the 2012 shutdown of A.G. Holley State Hospital, the state's only tuberculosis institution, in Palm Beach County. Hospital closures are rare, but admissions are declining nationally amid changes in how insurers pay for care and the fact that more medical procedures can be done without an overnight stay.
For the last three years, the United States has seen a decline of about 2 percent in inpatient admissions, said hospital consultant Peter Young.
Locally, hospital closings are extremely rare. The small Centro Asturiano Hospital in Tampa closed in 1990. MacDill Air Force Base shut down its emergency department in 2005.
Edward White's corporate owner, HCA West Florida, said clinical operations will be consolidated with three sister facilities in south Pinellas: Northside Hospital, Palms of Pasadena Hospital and St. Petersburg General Hospital. Most Edward White employees will be offered jobs at other area HCA hospitals.
With 162 beds, Edward White last year ran a $5.5 million operating deficit, on top of the nearly $1.1 million shortfall from 2012, according to financial documents submitted to the state.
HCA blames continuing declines in hospital admissions, as well as the cost of keeping up the aging building. The closing is expected by Nov. 24.
Last year, its average occupancy rate was just 28.6 percent, down slightly from 29 percent in 2012.
HCA's Northside Hospital ran a $4.2 million operating deficit in 2012 — larger than Edward White's that year — but had a 37.5 percent occupancy rate.
Edward White's nearby rival, St. Anthony's Hospital, in 2012 posted 56 percent occupancy.
Bill Ulbricht, St. Anthony's president, said he was surprised by HCA's announcement. "It's a difficult decision for any organization," he said. "To close a hospital is a tough call."
Last year, 18 U.S. hospitals closed, according to Becker's Hospital Review. In some cases, hospital officials cited the failure of many Republican-led states to expand Medicaid coverage to more uninsured adults, despite generous federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
HCA would not say Tuesday whether Florida's refusal to expand Medicaid played a role in Edward White's shortfall.
The company was in acquisition mode last year, picking up three Tampa Bay hospitals — Palms of Pasadena, Memorial Hospital of Tampa and Town & Country Hospital — from Iasis Healthcare. That brought the for-profit company's Florida holdings to 42 hospitals.
Palms of Pasadena posted an even lower occupancy rate (23.4 percent) than Edward White's in 2012, and ran an operating deficit of nearly $1 million.
HCA spokeswoman J.C. Sadler wouldn't comment on Palms Tuesday other than to note it was part of the Iasis package.
Founded by 25 area physicians, Edward White Hospital opened in March 1976. It was named for Edward Higgins White II, the Gemini 4 astronaut who was the first American to walk in space. He died in 1967 during prelaunch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral.
HCA acquired the hospital in 1994. Just three years later, rumors surfaced that Edward White would close due to low occupancy and revenues, but officials said it was viable.
The company said 85 percent of the 363 employees will be able to find similar positions at other area HCA hospitals. That number includes clinical and support staff. Physicians already have privileges at other hospitals, said Sadler.
"Over the coming months, HCA West Florida will work closely with Edward White Hospital's medical staff to ensure continuity of care for their patients by assisting physicians with their transitions to other HCA affiliated hospitals," the statement says.
Sadler said no other closings are expected. HCA plans to put the facility, on Ninth Avenue N, up for sale in 2015.
On Tuesday morning, the hospital's small parking lot was full and business appeared normal. However, a steady stream of employees walked outside to make calls on their cellphones or huddle with co-workers. Employees declined to give their names, saying only that they had just learned of the news and hoped to continue working for HCA.
"It's bittersweet. It's been around for what seems like forever. But, bottom line, the building was just falling apart," said Anissa Raiford, Pinellas County Medical Association's executive director. "Now they'll able to put all their attention into the other four incredible facilities in the county."
City leaders said they were disappointed to hear of the closing.
"It's sad to see a hospital with such a long history of serving our community closing, but we're fortunate to have so many quality hospitals in St. Petersburg, and I am confident that medical care for our residents will not suffer," said Mayor Rick Kriseman.