BY DEMORRIS A. LEE
TARPON SPRINGS — A name change is essential for the viability of Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, its leaders told the City Commission Tuesday.
And in order to leverage the hospital in the current competitive market and make it a regional medical center, they suggested the name be changed to Florida Hospital North Pinellas.
"We feel this is important for the future and for the hospital to be successful," said Bruce Bergherm, the hospital's chief executive officer.
A name change would help with marketing and branding Helen Ellis with the other hospitals in the Adventist Health System, which now owns the 168-bed facility. It also positions the hospital for future growth, Bergherm said.
Adventist Health System is an affiliate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Most, though not all, of the Adventist Health System hospitals in the state have Florida Hospital and a location in their names.
One exception is Florida Hospital Fish Memorial in Orange City, formerly known as Volusia Medical Center. The hospital was renamed after Adventist bought it in the late 1990s, combining the flagship name "Florida Hospital" with the last name of local philanthropist Bert Fish, according to the hospital's website.
Because Bergherm's proposal was a discussion item, no action was taken by the commissioners Tuesday. But the issue is likely to attract interest from Tarpon Springs residents, since the hospital was named as a memorial to one of its best-known citizens.
Under Bergherm's proposal, Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital would be subtitled in smaller letters under Florida Hospital North Pinellas on the outside of the building. The words Helen Ellis would not appear anywhere else in the hospital.
Carol E. Martin, the daughter of Helen Ellis, took issue with that at Tuesday's meeting. While the quality of care has gotten better since Adventist Health System took control, Martin said, it hasn't been made clear where her mother's name would appear and "if the name change included on letterhead and everywhere."
Martin mentioned that her family has donated and committed $5.5 million to the hospital, with the final $2 million to be given over the next couple of years.
A.L. and Helen Ellis became Tarpon Springs residents in 1946. A.L. Ellis was a banker and once was named one of Forbes magazine's 400 richest men in America. Helen Ellis volunteered many hours at the hospital and her family contributed millions. The hospital, previously named Tarpon Springs General Hospital, was renamed in her honor in February 1989. She died at the hospital that same month at age 81.
It was initially thought that the hospital's name could only be changed through a referendum by Tarpon voters. Tuesday night, City Attorney Jim Yacavone said that in his legal opinion, the name can be changed by a simple resolution of the City Commission.
Tuesday night, Bergherm detailed for the commission the $45 million in upgrades that the Adventist Healthcare System has made to Helen Ellis Memorial since taking over in 2010.
Adventist merged with University Community Hospital Inc., the previous operator of the struggling Tarpon Springs facility. Built in 1927 on city-owned land, Helen Ellis Memorial had a $9.5 million revenue loss in 2010.
In addition to the facility improvements, a new computerized note-taking system for doctors was implemented and 50 new positions at an average salary of $33 an hour were created. The hospital, which employs 436 people, also broadened its community outreach, giving 6,000 people community health screenings.
The commissioners applauded the upgrades that have been made at the hospital since Adventist stepped in, and they urged the hospital and the Ellis family to resolve the naming issue without the commission's intervention.
"It is my hope that there still will be some discussion as to what can happen to satisfy the family, with no legal implications about who gave the right and if the city has the right (to grant a name change)," Mayor David Archie said. "I don't want to go down that road."
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, like the others, noted that the hospital is a huge asset to the Tarpon community.
"We have to look at it with open eyes," Tarapani said. "Patients are not just coming from Tarpon Springs. I'd rather have a hospital with a Tarpon address and North Pinellas name than no hospital in Tarpon Springs at all."
Commissioner Jeff Larsen suggested a slight name modification. Because the hospital sits on city land, Larsen offered "Florida Hospital Tarpon Springs."
A name change is crucial, said Michael Kouskoutis, who has been a member of the hospital board for about 12 years. He said that if Adventist Health System had not stepped in, "I don't know if this hospital would be open right now."
Kouskoutis acknowledged the contributions of Helen Ellis but said the hospital has a "negative perception" in the medical community.
"With the name, doctors will not send their patients there," Kouskoutis told the commission. "If we remain narrow, and think only Tarpon Springs, we will not survive."