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Tampa General hatches ambitious plan

Tampa General Hospital president Bruce Siegel is expected to present to the board Wednesday an ambitious plan to close the main hospital on Davis Islands over the next five years and develop a world-class research institution near the University of South Florida medical school.

The first step in the plan would be to turn the hospital into a private, not-for-profit corporation that would oversee the research institution and, eventually, satellite clinics.

Politicians who were briefed on the plans said Monday that Siegel's strategy includes a stronger involvement from the university, which has had an often stormy and tenuous affiliation with the public hospital.

They said the plan also could include a long-term relationship with other area hospitals, including Baycare Health Network, which includes St. Joseph's Hospital.

Eventually, they said, the partnership could create a Tampa Bay area medical center with the reputation of the Cleveland Clinic or M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"It's an unconventional strategy. I think it could promise huge dividends in the community. . . . I'm sure it's going to be controversial because it is ambitious," said County Commissioner Ed Turanchik. He was one of more than 10 public officials who discussed with the Times elements of their briefings with Siegel and TGH board chairman H. L. Culbreath. The pair have been touting the plan in Tampa and Tallahassee since Friday.

Hospital board members confirmed the proposal is among six plans considered during six months of secret strategy sessions. It involved phasing out operations at the Davis Islands campus, which has become costly and uncompetitive as Hillsborough's population moves to the north and east.

Board members said Siegel proposed building a research institution near USF, with a series of satellite medical centers in other strategic locations around the county.

Legislators said the locations mentioned to them in recent briefing sessions included Ybor City and the Eastlake Mall area.

USF officials declined comment Monday night. Siegel and Culbreath could not be reached for comment. Siegel is expected to unveil his plan at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday before the 15-member board. He has assured lawmakers that no vote will be taken until the public has ample opportunity to comment.

"I commend them for branching out," said state Sen. John Grant.

Board members said the plan would take a massive amount of money, and there was discussion of how much income they could generate by the sale of the Davis Islands property.

The Tampa Municipal Hospital opened in 1927 with 250 beds on land deeded two years earlier to the city of Tampa by D.

P. Davis. His deed stipulated that if the property were ever not used for a hospital, it would revert back to the Davis Estate. The land, building and equipment were transferred in 1980 to the newly created Hillsborough County Hospital Authority.

More than 3,200 employees and hundreds of USF and private doctors work at the Davis Islands hospital, a landmark for 70 years at the edge of Bayshore Boulevard.

Board members said it was still unclear how the provision in the original deed would affect the proposed plan.

The secrecy that has shrouded the hospital's plans has raised fear and suspicions in the minority community, and troubled some lawmakers who say Siegel left them in the dark.

State Rep. Victor Crist said he was so angered that hospital officials failed to discuss their plans to privatize before it was first detailed in the Times that he agreed to sponsor legislation with state Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, to force public hearings before any changes could be made. He chastised Siegel on Friday in Tallahassee.

"I am really appalled at the way this thing has taken place. This whole thing stinks," he said he told Siegel.

Crist, who initially opposed any attempts to privatize Tampa General, said Culbreath and Siegel assured him Friday that constituents in his lower-income district would not lose health care services.

"They said "Hang loose a little while.' It will be cost-effective and provide even better quality. It's going to be a significant change, but for the better," he said.

Crist said he has reservations. "I'm very skeptical."

Hospital officials have been working for more than a month with the Tampa public relations firm of Tucker/Hall Inc. in preparation for Wednesday's announcement but have been secretive about their agreement with the company.

They would not provide contracts or financial records, although chief financial officer Kathy Gillette said, "Tucker/Hall is a name I'm familiar with around here."

Phone records show that Stacey Winn, Siegel's special assistant, has made repeated calls to the firm from her private telephone line, but Winn initially denied knowing anything about the company.

"I'd like to hold my response until I speak with our counsel," Winn said early Monday. She did not return later calls.

"You don't need to spend dollars that the hospital desperately needs on public relations for a venture that should be able to stand on its own merit," said board member Pat Frank. "I'm just beginning to think this hospital is being run by a couple of people and the rest of us don't know anything about what's going on."

Elsewhere around the county, elected officials said they are willing to listen to the proposal. City Council member Charlie Miranda talked with Siegel about plans for satellite locations. "If you ask my opinion about the hospital, it's in the wrong location," Miranda said.

County Commissioner Joe Chillura said he was assured that the indigent health care issue would not be forgotten.

"Conceptually, it sounded like something our board will be willing to have an open mind on," Chillura said. "Decentralizing and doing more outreach in the community is consistent with our indigent care program. I would consider that to be very constructive."