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Hospital "hysteria' surprises chairman

On the eve of the first Tampa General Hospital debate over privatization, board chairman H.L. Culbreath released a sternly worded letter Tuesday in which he chided "the atmosphere of hysteria that has been generated by media coverage and comments based on speculation."

Culbreath, the retired head of TECO Energy Co., said that speculation is "disappointing and dismaying." He later said in a telephone interview that the hysteria is "just my feeling. . . . It's just conversations, comments, glances, shrugs."

"They brought it on themselves," said county Commissioner Jan Platt, who will ask county board members at 3:30 p.m. today to request at least three public hearings before a hospital board vote is taken. "It should not be a hysterical debate, but they shot themselves in the foot by the way they handled the entire issue. The public has been shut out too long in the process. It's created suspicion."

The Times first published Thursday hospital President Bruce Siegel's plan to recommend March 26 that the hospital go private and pursue a partnership with Tenet Healthcare Corp, the country's second-largest for-profit hospital chain. County Commissioner Thomas Scott said his and Siegel's support of the plan would blunt objections from the black community, which rigorously opposed a nearly identical privatization attempt in 1990.

The details of the hospital board's plans have been discussed since September in closed-door sessions so secret their time and place have been closely guarded. Several board members said the original idea was to quietly present the privatization recommendation March 26 to a mostly receptive board which had reached a consensus in private sessions.

Board member Pat Frank, who has been the board's most vocal opponent of privatization, said Tuesday that Culbreath's reaction to the initial public response to the information shows naivete. "The public has every right to react," Frank said. "There's no damage done by letting everyone air their views. . . . I don't know that anything's been hysterical."

People in the black community were angered by the strategy to silence their opposition, and were further offended by one board member who said public input was unnecessary. Culbreath said Tuesday he will recommend public hearings, but said the extent of public response they solicit would be discussed March 26. Siegel also has called for public hearings. Siegel invited about 60 people from the black community to a noon luncheon today at Tampa General to discuss his plans. The luncheon was planned after the board's intentions were publicized.

Culbreath, in a letter he said was written by an unknown party but expressed his thoughts, said the recommendation to the board will include care for the medically indigent.

"If we decide to privatize, it does not mean we will give up our mission to serve the medically indigent," he said. "The two are not mutually exclusive."

Bob Gilder, who actively opposed privatization in 1990, said there must be a lengthy debate about the level of care that will be provided to the poor and underinsured before Tampa General changes its governance.

Culbreath also defended the six secret meetings, which were conducted under a 1993 exemption to the state Government in the Sunshine laws, and noted that the board is permitted to discuss strategy without public scrutiny. He wrote: "And it's a good thing we are: If we had to face this kind of hysteria every time we studied an option, we'd never make any progress."

Culbreath later said the hospital was four or five years from bankruptcy. The hospital is expected to post a $10-million profit this year.