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3rd suitor for Helen Ellis steps forward

Tampa General is among the non-profit groups in partnership talks with the financially troubled community hospital.

Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital has been playing let's make a deal for several weeks.

Now the audience finally gets to see what is behind door No. 3: Tampa General Hospital.

On Aug. 2, Helen Ellis announced that it was talking with three non-profit hospital groups about a merger or joint operating agreement.

The hospital, which has been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each month recently, plans to cooperate with the city government to pick a partner. Its leaders hope the deal will ensure the long-term survival of the 168-bed community hospital.

Behind door No. 1 is a partnership between Adventist Health System of Winter Park and University Community Hospital of Tampa. Behind door No. 2 is Morton Plant Mease Health Care of Dunedin, which has shown surpluses lately while many other hospital groups hemorrhage money.

Helen Ellis administrator Joseph Kiefer played cagey on the third possibility, saying that potential partner did not want to be named publicly and that he had agreed to keep mum.

Thursday, Tampa General spokesman John Dunn acknowledged that his hospital is the third suitor.

"We have talked to them," he said. "When opportunities pop up, we just want to take a look at how they might fit into our long-term plans."

The 877-bed Tampa General Hospital has been losing money just as Helen Ellis has. It reported a $12.7-million deficit last year and continues to run deficits.

One thing Helen Ellis wanted was an affiliate in good enough financial shape to help it refinance its $28-million in high-interest, long-term debt.

Kiefer said he will keep an open mind until he sees Tampa General's proposal at the end of the month.

"There is a geographic location that's positive," he noted. "They're in the Tampa Bay area."

All three hospital groups have until Aug. 27 to submit an outline of the affiliation arrangement they favor. So far, the three groups are the only ones to respond with interest from among 25 non-profit hospital groups Helen Ellis contacted, Kiefer said.

Both TGH and Helen Ellis at one time were publicly run by city governments. Now they are each operated by private, non-profit corporations using public buildings and equipment. Both have a mission of serving the public rather than making money, but they also play close to the vest with information about their business dealings.

The Times and the Tampa Tribune are suing Tampa General for access to business records, maintaining that the hospital is performing a governmental function and is therefore subject to Florida's open government laws. Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for September.

Kiefer said Helen Ellis has signed confidentiality agreements with all three groups investigating an affiliation. Helen Ellis is giving those groups access to its business records.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.