Courtesy of ad nauseam campaign ads, many Floridians are familiar with candidate Rick Scott's denials of wrongdoing over Columbia/HCA's Medicare/Medicaid fraud (and the subsequent $1.7 billion fine) when he was CEO of the hospital giant.
The issue got big airtime during the Republican primary race for Florida governor. The topic will surely become an even bigger issue in the final nine weeks before the Nov. 2 election.
A lesser-known tale closer to home is about Columbia/HCA and chief Scott's desire in the mid 1990s to buy struggling Tampa General Hospital. This is a story about a shady transaction that nearly came to pass and why it never did.
It begins in the early 1990s when Tampa General was run by David Bussone, a former Columbia/HCA manager himself. He would resign abruptly in 1994 as Tampa General's president amid rumors he secretly tried to broker the sale of the public hospital to for-profit Columbia/HCA. As Columbia's chief, Scott said publicly back then that he would like to acquire Tampa General and add it to his fast-growing hospital chain.
As reported by the St. Petersburg Times, Bussone's critics balked in 1994 after he invited Scott to Tampa to join him at a hospital foundation dinner. Rumors of a sale began circulating.
After Bussone was asked to resign, Tampa General board members discovered hospital attorneys had drafted a bill that would have enabled the sale of Tampa General to a for-profit hospital.
Bussone was replaced at Tampa General by county administrator Fred Karl until a successor was found. But before Karl left, he called then Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and raised concerns that Bussone may have acted in secret and against the hospital's best interests.
By 1995, the acquisition attempt by Columbia/HCA became the focus of state and federal criminal inquiries. Investigators wanted to know if Bussone purposely devalued the public hospital to help sell it at a discount to Columbia. The fact that Bussone left Tampa General and — such a coincidence! — once again became a Columbia/HCA executive only compounded the sense of deception.
By then, amid growing criticism of Columbia/HCA's aggressive cost cutting and patient care, Scott had huge ambitions for his hospital chain to own one of every five hospitals in the nation.
Ultimately, Tampa General would not become one of them. It chose to switch from a public to a private, nonprofit hospital and not be acquired by any chain.
Still, Scott's Tampa Bay empire was already well established. By then, Columbia owned 12 hospitals across the metro area as well as 10 surgical centers and 34 home health agencies.
On July 25, 1997, Scott, who had built the chain from two hospitals in 1987 to 342, resigned as chairman from Columbia/HCA. The rest of the story we pretty much know. Scott left with a supersized pay package. And Columbia/HCA was later fined $1.7 billion for overbilling Medicare and Medicaid.
Is there a lesson in the aborted deal to make Tampa General part of Scott's nationwide hospital giant?
The transaction, so devious in its early stages, simply never passed the smell test. Tampa General — and Tampa Bay — are better off that the deal never happened.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.