TARPON SPRINGS — A city face-off with local hospital leaders ended abruptly last week after commissioners narrowly approved a deal to launch a city-run employee medical clinic.
The decision came after an emotional three-hour discussion over whether Tarpon Springs has an obligation to give Florida Hospital North Pinellas the opportunity to serve city employees before the city opens a clinic.
The clinic would be designed to provide easy access to health care for employees, encourage preventive care and reduce insurance costs.
Mayor David Archie and Commissioners Jeff Larsen and Susan Slattery voted to proceed with the clinic, while Commissioners David Banther and Townsend Tarapani said they wanted to give the hospital a chance to compile a good offer for the city.
Tarpon Springs' health plan covers just under 300 employees, about half of whom insure dependents.
"If I thought a delay would lead to a better contract for the city, I would be the first one to have that," Archie said, minutes before the 3-2 vote. "But I don't believe that will be the case."
The clinic initiative is by the Florida League of Cities, which insures Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar through United Healthcare. The league would pay startup costs and hire a vendor to manage the clinic, offering employees in both cities free primary care and generic medications.
The doctor would earn a salary and no insurance claims would be filed. The League of Cities would pass claims savings to the city in the form of lower insurance premiums.
Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs would rent office space in Palm Harbor and split the rental cost 70-30 because Tarpon Springs has more employees.
City leaders have been planning the clinic for months, but the proposal recently hit an unexpected snag when the deal came to the attention of Florida Hospital, which is built on city land at 1395 S Pinellas Ave.
Hospital CEO Bruce Bergherm, who took to the lectern several times to praise the hospital's health care and its contribution to the community, said he could offer comparable benefits to city employees and spare taxpayers the expense of a clinic.
The hospital could offer quick service, he said. No copays. Free employee screenings.
"We've invested $45 million in the hospital and in this community and have paid $22 million in uncompensated care," Bergherm said. "We were not offered the opportunity to sit down with the city in a proactive way and discuss what our goals were."
Archie and City Manager Mark LeCouris say it's not so simple.
The proposed clinic is similar to clinics in Clearwater, Dunedin and Tampa, which have saved millions by not filing insurance claims for the care provided there. Any proposal by the hospital would involve submitting claims, which could negate potential savings.
At least a dozen people, most of whom were affiliated with the hospital, urged commissioners to give the hospital 30 days to come up with a plan that works for everyone.
But they got pushback from Archie and LeCouris, who said there was no way to include the hospital without thwarting the clinic.
"The whole thing is getting muddied up because of the hospital," said Archie, his tone exasperated. "We started off with how can we do something for employees while saving taxpayer money and now it's turning into discussions about an insurance plan."
In the end, commissioners decided the hospital should get first shot at potential clinic contracts provided it offers the best deals.
That wasn't enough for some hospital leaders, who left City Hall angry Wednesday, or for some commissioners, who said the hospital deserved more.
"It's a fair deal when everyone walks away from the table thinking they got a fair deal," Tarapani said. "And in my opinion Florida Hospital is not getting a fair deal."