ST. PETERSBURG — Bayfront Medical Center threw a small celebration Thursday morning to announce plans to join a for-profit hospital chain affiliated with the medical center at the University of Florida.
Officials drew smiles with promises to serve the community, ensure the 480-bed hospital's future, bring in new doctors and services — and even enrich the city's tax base.
But within hours, a major player in Tampa Bay health care was crying foul. Thursday afternoon, USF Health dean Dr. Stephen Klasko declared that the Bayfront-Health Management Associates union is a bad deal for the area.
"To introduce a Gainesville-based academic medical center further fragments care for the Tampa Bay community and affects our ability to be a health care leader," Klasko said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
"USF Health understands the financial pressure placed on Bayfront Medical Center by the changing health care landscape. That's why USF Health stands ready to work with a capital partner to make Bayfront a viable entity as part of USF Health System," he wrote, but did not identify a possible partner.
He even threw in a sports analogy.
"At the same time that we are looking at ways to keep the Tampa Bay Rays here, we will have patients and students bypass USF Health, Tampa General Hospital, Moffitt Cancer Center and the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute on the way to Gainesville," he wrote.
Klasko was not available for further comment Thursday, a USF spokeswoman said.
Officials at Bayfront and its new corporate partner, Naples-based Health Management Associates, responded with their own carefully worded statement.
"We welcome all academic partners who are committed to advancing the medical sciences in this community, and that of course includes USF," they said.
But after two years of searching for a suitor, Bayfront is off the market, they indicated.
USF in general and Klasko in particular long have bristled at not having its own teaching hospital, calling it a handicap to competing with institutions like the University of Florida, which has Shands HealthCare.
• • •
Shands' logo is splashed all over materials announcing the Bayfront-HMA partnership. Yet Shands CEO Tim Goldfarb downplayed its role.
"We get some notoriety by our name, but not so much by our role," Goldfarb told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview Thursday morning. "This is not about Shands. This is about Bayfront and about Health Management."
"We're here as HMA's date," he added.
He said Shands expects to offer support as requested. Bayfront and HMA have suggested that Shands could make doctors available for consultations and become a referral center for services unavailable at Bayfront.
Goldfarb could see Shands helping Bayfront to improve cardiac and stroke emergency care — as it has at HMA hospitals in Pasco and Hernando. But he couldn't see patients driving to Gainesville for care.
"It's unrealistic if we focus on the patient and family as our primary responsibilities to think that people are going to drive around and go where some corporation tells them to go," he said.
Shands also doesn't intend to expand its graduate medical education programs to Bayfront, which has its own residencies in family medicine and ob-gyn and a sports medicine fellowship.
"I don't see Shands as the unique or exclusive supporter of Bayfront in anything," said Goldfarb, who did not return calls about Klasko's statement.
Shands will have the option to purchase into the Bayfront partnership, said Alan Levine, HMA senior vice president and head of its Florida group. "But I don't think they want to do that," he said.
In an interview Thursday morning, Levine said that Bayfront would become a center for robotics training for HMA hospitals nationwide. He said he didn't know if Bayfront might collaborate with USF, which has a training center in downtown Tampa that offers robotics training, but thought it a possibility.
• • •
Klasko has a reputation for ruffling feathers, famously saying people often leave Tampa Bay for better medical care.
He likely did not ingratiate himself with Bayfront when he teamed with the for-profit HCA hospital chain to run its new statewide network of trauma centers. The added competition has drained hundreds of patients from Bayfront, which along with others is suing the state over approval of the programs.
Still, Klasko's unorthodox approach has netted results. Just last month, he announced the creation of a new USF health care system, with its first member being 851-bed Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
At Thursday's gathering, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster rattled off all the big health care players in what he called the "It District.'' The list included Bayfront, HMA and Shands, as well as All Children's Hospital, now part of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Also on his list: the University of South Florida, which also has a residency program at All Children's — but not Bayfront.