TARPON SPRINGS — City commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to allow hiring decisions to be based on religious beliefs at Helen Ellis Hospital to clear the way for a merger that could save the financially strapped facility.
Commissioners voted 5-0 on a request by Adventist Health System Sunbelt, which is associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to waive a clause in their lease agreement with the hospital that prohibited discrimination based on religion.
"I'm looking at this as an opportunity, a great opportunity for our hospital to survive," Commissioner Susan Slattery said.
The vote will enable Adventist Health System to finalize its merger with University Community Hospital Inc., which operates the hospital.
The clause said "the decisions on hiring practices and the selection of medical staff will not be dictated, and the selection of individuals to sit on the Board of Directors of the Foundation will not be made in any manner that is by religious preferences, religious beliefs, religious tenets, religious doctrine or other religious principles ... ." The clause also prohibits the display of religious symbols in the hospital, no active religious proselytization, and adoption of "any policies or procedures that absolutely preclude the provision of abortion services."
Other changes at Helen Ellis Hospital would make it so non-emergency workers will not have to work and no major medical procedures will be conducted from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in keeping with the Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs. And pork and shell fish will be excluded from the cafeteria menu.
"Those type of operational things are in respect with Seventh-day Adventists and its key values," said Christine Stewart, communications director for AHS. "Not having shellfish and pork in the cafeteria has nothing to do with the care of patients."
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The lease issue is a technicality and has no effect on the quality of care, Stewart said before Tuesday night's meeting.
"The language itself indicates that the hospital cannot be leased by a faith-based organization and we would have to have it removed before we can lease the hospital," Stewart said.
Stewart said AHS has 50,000 employees worldwide. Some of them are Hindu, Muslims and atheists, she said. But all CEOs at hospitals owned and operated by AHS are Seventh-day Adventist, a memo to the city officials noted.
"It is not a requirement to be a Seventh-day Adventist to work for us and the patients that we serve are diverse," Stewart said.
Tarpon Springs owns Helen Ellis Hospital and the land where the facility sits. The city leases the hospital to University Community Health for $303,620 annually.
In March, UCH in Tampa and AHS signed a nonbinding letter of intent to explore a merger.
"In an ideal world, we would probably want that in there, but I don't have any information that AHS discriminates against individuals as it relates to employment," Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie said of the clause before the meeting.
"All that has come to me is that the hospital is in a dire situation and needing to be affiliated with someone again. AHS is very solid financially and all I can find out is that they have very good hospital operations all over the country."
In 2008, Helen Ellis Hospital posted a $9 million loss. The 2009 figures were not immediately available.
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John Hubbard, a Tarpon Springs city attorney, said before Tuesday's meeting he expected the city to reach a middle ground with Adventist Health System.
Even without the clause, state and federal law protects potential employees against discrimination of any kind, he said.
"You have to do a balance," Hubbard said. "We can allow some incursion of religion to occur as a balance to not having a viable hospital in the city .…"
Adventist, the largest Protestant health care system in the nation, is a nonprofit network sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The system has 38 hospitals in 12 states. There are 18 hospitals in Florida, including Florida Hospital in Orlando, which has more than 1,000 beds. There also is an 154-bed facility in Zephyrhills.
Phoebe Ochman, spokeswoman for University Health System, said the merger would result in a joint operation between the two entities but the details have not been finalized.
"We could all stay the same or there could be a name change," Ochman said.
Michael Kouskoutis, chairman of the Helen Ellis Hospital Board, said before the meeting he supports the merger.
"I talked to people in the community and they don't care if there is a cross or a Star of David hanging on the wall," Kouskoutis said. "The question they ask is 'Am I getting good care?'
"My obligation to this community is to make sure it has good, quality health care. I would not support this if there wasn't the same belief in health care. (AHS) has the financial strength and stability to help it (Helen Ellis) move forward."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or 727-445-4174.