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Hospitals pact put on hold by court

A Tampa bankruptcy judge has shelved for now an agreement that would have kept HCA/Oak Hill Hospital's inpatient cardiac catheterization lab from opening until October.

The agreement was forged by the leaders of Oak Hill and its competitor, Brooksville Regional Hospital, after Oak Hill got state approval in December to establish the inpatient cath lab.

The purpose of the pact had been twofold:

It would have ended Brooksville Regional's legal protest of the Oak Hill cath lab, a protest that could have dragged the two hospitals through expensive and time-consuming legal battles.

Also, it would have given Brooksville Regional time to smooth its rocky relations with physicians and woo back cardiologists who had reduced their use of the county-owned hospital. Brooksville Regional already has an inpatient cardiac cath lab, which is used to diagnose heart problems.

The new managers of Brooksville Regional protested the April agreement, saying that neither the Bankruptcy Court nor the Brooksville Regional board of directors had approved it.

The judge's ruling Monday interrupted the most recent example of the competing hospitals' tug of war.

In the past eight years, both hospitals repeatedly have sought state approval to add space or services to their facilities.

Brooksville Regional files a protest each time Oak Hill receives such approval. The protests have delayed Oak Hill's projects and produced legal expenses for both facilities.

On several occasions, the two facilities have negotiated compromises that allowed Oak Hill to move forward with its projects, but gave Brooksville Regional concessions.

And that's what happened in this agreement, according to Oak Hill spokesman Vince Vanni.

Oak Hill, which already provides outpatient catheterizations, received approval for an inpatient lab in December.

Having an inpatient lab will allow Oak Hill to provide catheterization to many more patients, Vanni said. Currently, patients who need such sophisticated diagnostic tests once they have been admitted to Oak Hill must be transported to HCA/Bayonet Point-Hudson Regional Medical Center.

Those patients would not have to be sent to Pasco County once the inpatient lab opens, Vanni said.

But Brooksville Regional challenged the state approval, Vanni said.

The Brooksville hospital already had an inpatient cath lab, but the use of that lab had diminished because of antipathy between doctors and company leaders, according to former company leader Ken Thompson.

"The commitment of the Brooksville doctors was that, if the management and the board leadership changed, there would be a heavy return of physicians to the hospital and the heavy use of the (Brooksville Regional) cath lab," Thompson said.

"Our sense was that we just needed time to make those changes and get the doctors back."

Stephen Ecenia, the Tallahassee lawyer who negotiated for Brooksville Regional, said Thompson directed him to forge the agreement.

Ecenia wasn't surprised that the hospital board did not authorize negotiations.

"I've represented (Brooksville Regional) for some time now," Ecenia said. "In fact, I entered into an earlier settlement agreement with (Oak Hill) that I don't think went to the board either.

"I had no reason to believe an order from Ken Thompson wasn't sufficient. I negotiate settlement agreements with a number of different clients and the decisions are usually made at the CEO level, not at the board level."

But the hospital company's new manager, Fred Woody, said he thought the board should have okayed the negotiations.

Woody had other reasons for asking the Bankruptcy Court to intervene. He said he was concerned that the agreement was negotiated without prior approval from the Bankruptcy Court.

"We needed more time to evaluate the impact of (the Oak Hill cath lab) on this organization," he said.

The judge's ruling Monday will not have an impact on Oak Hill yet.

Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Baynes said he will make a final ruling on the agreement July 20.