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Bayfront Medical Center vote could be next week

ST. PETERSBURG — The sale of Pinellas County's last independent hospital to a for-profit hospital chain could be sealed as soon as next Thursday.

Health Management Associates last week announced an agreement with Bayfront Medical Center to acquire an 80 percent controlling interest in the hospital. But the deal is pending approval of a lease by the St. Petersburg City Council, as the hospital sits on city-owned land.

Ensuring that Bayfront continues its legacy of serving the poor has been among the top concerns for council members. Some also are worried that they are being rushed into a vote.

"I feel no obligation to vote for a deal that I don't feel I am fully informed about," council member Steve Kornell, who is undecided about his vote, said Tuesday.

Mayor Bill Foster and some council members have publicly supported the deal; others have been more reluctant.

Bayfront has been struggling financially in recent years and estimates an operating loss of about 5 percent in its core patient care business for 2012, hospital spokeswoman Emily Nipps said Tuesday. But hospital officials have stressed that financial pressure was not the driving factor in their decision to partner with HMA, which they describe as a long-term play to grow and invest in new programs.

Kornell, however, was frustrated that council members have only just received a draft of the new Bayfront lease, which hospital and city lawyers have had months to discuss. Highlights of the lease include the following provisions:

• Charity care: Bayfront would continue its existing charity care policy, but the document doesn't specify how much care will be provided. Patients can qualify for charity care if their income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and they don't get other government assistance. The definition is "fairly vague," said Kornell.

• Trauma care: Bayfront operates the only trauma center in Pinellas, an expensive operation that has taken a hit in the past year from the opening of new trauma centers in Pasco and Manatee. In the future, Bayfront would be required only to "use reasonable efforts" to maintain its trauma designation, the lease states.

• Lease terms: Bayfront's lease would be good for 50 years. The hospital has the option to renew for two additional 10-year terms. Removed from the current lease is a stipulation that Bayfront be operated as a not-for-profit.

• Non-discrimination: Bayfront — which once tried to partner with BayCare Health system, which has Catholic ties — would be required to be run as a secular hospital.

• Name: The hospital name must contain "Bayfront." It may not include references to any location but St. Petersburg, which would keep, for example, someone from putting Tampa Bay in the name.

City Council members can ask questions about the lease on Thursday at 11 a.m. at an agenda review session. A discussion is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Feb. 21, when the council could vote on the lease.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330.

Bayfront Medical Center vote could be next week 02/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 9:31pm]
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