It is hard to imagine a worse time for strains to appear in the working relationship between the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital. With consolidation in the health care industry, and uncertainty as the nation prepares for full implementation of the new health care law, the bay area's largest hospital and its medical school need to come together to strengthen the public mission and finances of two institutions that play an outsized role in the life and economy of Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Letitia Stein reported Sunday on the tension bubbling barely under the surface between the dean of USF's medical school, Dr. Stephen Klasko, and TGH board chairman David A Straz Jr. In emails obtained by the Times, Klasko vents his frustration with the hospital and questions whether USF should rethink its place and strategy in the local health care market. Klasko told the Times that the sentiments he expressed in the fall 2012 emails are "ancient history." But Straz made clear the relationship is still far from perfect. And both sides look to have very different ideas about what's needed to get the alliance back on track.
The rift reveals the mind-set of a hard-charging dean and the paternal sense of obligation that Straz has for the nonprofit hospital. But it also calls into question whether USF and its main teaching hospital are fundamentally apart on a vision and strategy for the future.
Klasko faulted Tampa General for not moving in recent times to partner with other health care providers, an industry norm. He defended the university's newly created health system alliance with Lakeland Regional Medical Center by saying that USF was effectively forced to act because TGH was not aggressive enough. Straz said Klasko has soured the waters in the past by calling for the university to build its own academic hospital and with its new clinical partnerships that critics say will siphon business away from the Davis Islands facility.
The arrival this month of Tampa General's new CEO, Jim Burkhart, offers a face-saving opportunity for both sides to hit the reset button. Burkhart's time at University of Florida-affiliated Shands Jacksonville Medical Center, another nonprofit teaching hospital, gives him a view of how to balance the academic side of medicine with TGH's long and cherished role of serving as a safety net for the poor. The hospital has limited ability to partner with others due to stipulations when it changed from a public to private, not-for-profit institution in the 1990s. But Burkhart has signaled that he will open a discussion of the hospital's strategic options. As the region's last stand-alone, independent general hospital, the issue for Tampa General is "not whether you can survive, but whether you can thrive," its CEO said.
Both institutions need to be at the table for this debate. USF and Tampa General should use the cover of new leadership to open the lines of communication. At this time of rapid change in the health care industry, the two need to work together to protect the unique role each plays, and to continue building the region's brand of excellence.