ST. PETERSBURG — Bayfront Medical Center's future in the for-profit hospital sector grew more uncertain this week with word of yet another mega hospital merger.
Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc. agreed to pay $7.6 billion for Health Management Associates, which took over Bayfront in April. If this latest deal goes through, the new hospital chain will become the country's largest.
It could take years to evaluate whether Bayfront's owners — whoever they turn out to be — will maintain the hospital's legacy of treating St. Petersburg's uninsured.
But after four months of HMA ownership, one promising sign has emerged: Bayfront's once-shaky financial prospects appear to have stabilized.
"I think there is a commitment to making sure Bayfront is highly successful,'' said city administrator Tish Elston, who meets monthly with Bayfront's chief financial officer. "We are going to do everything we can to protect what this hospital has meant to the community.''
Some of the specifics:
• Bayfront's bottom line has stayed comfortably in the black since the takeover, Kathryn Gillette, the new CEO of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, said last week.
• The patient census has dropped "modestly,'' but that's happening nationally as more patients are treated outside of hospitals, Gillette said. Meanwhile, patients who are admitted receive more costly services like major surgery and trauma care.
• Joining Naples-based HMA's 71-hospital family has reduced some of Bayfront's costs through group purchasing. Savings on prescription drugs, for example, come to about $300,000 a month. Bayfront also is spending about $3,500 less on every hip and knee implant device.
• Bayfront now anchors a seven-hospital regional network within HMA, with smaller facilities sending patients to 480-bed Bayfront for certain procedures. About 20 patients a month now come through the door from the network, Gillette estimated. "I know (the network) has much more potential,'' she said. "But I am thrilled with the early results.''
• Job consolidations have meant more savings. Bayfront employees were told the sale would not mean layoffs, but 38 positions in the hospital's billing department were eliminated because HMA centralizes that function out of offices in Sarasota and Brooksville.
HMA offered the Bayfront employees jobs in those regional offices, with no loss of pay or benefits, but only one employee has accepted that deal so far.
The total staff count has remained fairly constant at about 2,400 since the sale, Gillette said, and average wages have risen 4.4 percent.
Because the hospital sits on city-owned land, HMA gave assurances that Bayfront will continue to treat the poor. That care "has not changed or has gone up marginally,'' Gillette said.
HMA also promised the city to make $100 million in improvements to Bayfront within five years. So far, $25 million has been invested, Gillette said.
That includes a new MRI machine, upgrades to the emergency room, about $11 million in technology upgrades and about $7 million in new equipment requested by the medical staff .
City officials have not received any emails or letters complaining about the new ownership, Elston said. "Just the fact that an organization that big is undergoing dramatic change and you are not hearing about it is a big plus,'' she said.
Dr. Trina Espinola, chief of the hospital's medical staff, said the transition has brought both excitement and frustration.
Decisions on personnel, salary and equipment that were once made at the hospital level now must pass through a corporate superstructure — something not likely to change if the hospital changes hands yet again. "It's a longer, more arduous process,'' Espinola said. "You just don't get an immediate response.''
Key leaders on the nursing staff left for other hospitals amid anxiety over the new regime, she said, compounded by anxiety that HMA itself might be sold.
On the other hand, Gillette "is a great leader,'' Espinola said. "Kathy and her administration are very engaged, very available.''
HMA's investments enhance Bayfront's capacities as a major surgical center, she said — including new guided imagery systems and a second robot for microsurgery. A fledgling research and training relationship with the University of Florida also holds great promise, she said.
"The medical staff, as a whole, is very excited'' Espinola said. "Hopefully this new leadership is going to help us grow through change.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or [email protected]