TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners are urging one of the area's most high-profile couples to work on their relationship, for the county's sake.
Commissioners want University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and its primary teaching affiliate, Tampa General Hospital, to report within the next three months "specific steps taken to enhance (their) relationship," according to a proposal recently approved by the board.
Neither USF nor Tampa General will say publicly that the relationship needs help. But commissioners will.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who presented the proposal, said he frequently hears of anxiety that the two institutions aren't taking their partnership to the next level. He said the two sides, for instance, haven't been able to agree on an increase in the number and types of medical residencies available at Tampa General.
"It's been kind of a long-standing issue," he said.
More than 300 medical residents from USF work at Tampa General, and the two sides recently renewed for one year their affiliation agreement. The previous agreement had a 10-year term, but Tampa General didn't want to commit for a longer period until it hires a replacement for outgoing CEO Ron Hytoff.
Commissioner Les Miller, who used to work at Tampa General and now is in the USF administration, said he, too, hears about tensions between the two sides. Many think it's a clash of two strong personalities: Hytoff and the ambitious medical school dean, Dr. Stephen Klasko.
"They're both personalities in their own right," said Miller. "As someone says, they don't crack an egg for breakfast. They smash it."
Klasko riled Tampa Bay providers four years ago when he pitched for USF to get its own hospital and declared that locals were leaving the area in search of better care. USF later teamed up with for-profit Hospital Corporation of America to run five new trauma units across Florida, a move that Tampa General, Bayfront and other longtime not-for-profit trauma providers successfully challenged in court.
In September, Klasko announced creation of the USF Health System. Its first and so far only member hospital is Lakeland Regional, which hopes to add 200 residents from USF.
Sharpe said he spoke with Klasko and USF president Judy Genshaft before drafting the statement he presented to commissioners last week outlining the county's interest in the partnership. He brought up the proposal at a retreat focused on economic development, and his fellow commissioners agreed it was needed.
USF Health said it appreciated the move, as did Tampa General.
"We're committed to exploring ways to strengthen our long-standing relationship to improve the health and well-being of the Tampa Bay community," the university said in a statement.
"Our partnership greatly enhances the quality of medical care for Tampa Bay area residents, and helps to keep new physicians in the bay area," said Tampa General in a statement.
Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, the chief executive officer of the USF Physicians Group, said he's heard the rumblings that the two sides don't get along, that the partnership might be in jeopardy. He said his experience has been to the contrary, citing several new joint efforts, including a joint bariatrics program.
"Really, our futures are aligned," he said.
Frank Morsani, the auto magnate and philanthropist for whom the medical school is named, said Sharpe's resolution was warranted not by any tensions but because of the changing landscape of health care.
High costs and the demand for a broader range of services are driving institutions to seek the safety of larger groups and chains. If for-profit Health Management Associates closes on a deal to take over Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Tampa General will be the bay area's only independent general hospital.
"That gives everybody pause," said Morsani.
He said USF, especially as it looks to raise its profile, wants to make sure it's a key player in Tampa General's future.
"The university's medical school couldn't be more dedicated to Tampa General Hospital," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.