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Mayor warns on abortion policy

Bayfront Medical Center must avoid entanglements with religion, David Fischer tells hospital officials.

Mayor David Fischer on Friday delivered a strong message to the head of Bayfront-St. Anthony's Health Care: Religious doctrine must not play a role in medical decisions.

"The mayor made it clear there can be no religious entanglement," said City Attorney Michael Davis.

Fischer did not deliver an "or else" with his message. But the implication he made during a meeting between city lawyers and Sue Brody, president and chief executive of Bayfront-St. Anthony's, was that any deference to religious doctrine could be a violation of the hospital's lease with the city.

In recent days, it has been disclosed that Bayfront Medical Center has curtailed abortions in certain cases. That policy change came because of Bayfront's affiliation with the BayCare network, which made that concession to its Catholic partners.

But the city's lease with Bayfront mandates that medical care be provided "without regard to sex, race, color or creed."

The concerns of city officials about possible lease violations were not alleviated by the hourlong session involving Brody, Fischer, Davis, two other city attorneys, Chief of Staff Don McRae and two managers in the city's economic development department.

The only apparent progress was that a meeting was held at all. Participants said Brody deflected many of the direct questions posed to her about religious doctrine and what role it plays in medical decisions. Instead, she spent time talking about the reduced patient load and revenue and the need to "displace" some hospital workers. She also spoke generally about health care nationwide.

"In all honesty, she came to the meeting all by herself, without legal counsel, on short notice," said Bruce Grimes, manager of property management and realty services. "She came to the meeting to talk about some issues, but that had limitations."

St. Petersburg owns the land beneath Bayfront Medical Center and since 1968 has leased it for $10 a year to the non-profit corporation that runs the hospital. Two years ago, Bayfront asked for the City Council's permission to change the lease to join the BayCare Health System.

Bayfront won approval after telling city officials that medical service would not change, that the alliance was merely an effort to cut costs. But BayCare officials did not publicize all of the deal.

The BayCare network of eight non-profit hospitals is Bayfront; St. Anthony's Hospital, St. Petersburg; Morton Plant, Clearwater; Mease, Dunedin and Countryside; St. Joseph's, Tampa; North Bay Medical Center, New Port Richey; and Florida Baptist Hospital, Plant City.

When the network was created, BayCare made a concession to its Catholic partners, allowing the creation of a committee to rule on requests from doctors and patients for abortions in certain cases. The idea was to allow only "medically necessary" abortions at Bayfront, but all involved seem to have trouble defining what that means.

"I don't think she was completely prepared to answer our questions because she hadn't done her homework," Davis said, adding that Brody planned to confer with other BayCare executives as she seeks answers. "She explained to us what is happening in the hospital industry generally. It was a good sign we were talking. Obviously, it wasn't all resolved."

Fischer could not be reached for comment Friday. But the message he delivered was an amplification of the comments he made Thursday, after City Council members expressed concerns about the hospital's future.

"We can't have services at Bayfront Medical Center that reflect in any way a religion or doctrine," Fischer said Thursday. "It's always been a quasi-municipal hospital that has served this city in a broad spectrum of needs."

Chief Assistant City Attorney John Wolfe pressed Brody about how "medically necessary" abortions are defined. She launched into a discourse on abortions performed at clinics, but that didn't answer the question.

"If there is excessive entanglement between church and state, it's against the Constitution," Chief Assistant Attorney John Wolfe said.

It is not clear how soon city officials will meet with Brody or Frank Murphy, chief executive of BayCare. She was invited to a special session of City Council on Aug. 24, when council members plan to question staffing and service levels.

"We were really trying to impress upon them this issue has a life of its own," Grimes said. "They really need to be pretty responsive."