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TGH checks out Tarpon hospital

Tampa General is among three non-profit groups in partnership talks with the financially troubled Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

Tampa General Hospital officials have talked with Tarpon Springs-based Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital about a possible merger or joint operating agreement, a Tampa General spokesman said Thursday.

"When opportunities pop up, we just want to take a look at how they might fit into our long-term plans," spokesman John Dunn said.

An official with Helen Ellis has said the hospital is talking with three different non-profit hospital groups.

The 168-bed community hospital has been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months, and wants to find a partner in good enough financial shape to help it refinance $28-million in high-interest, long-term debt.

But Tampa General has its own money problems.

The hospital, with 877 beds, reported a $12.7-million deficit last year and continues to run monthly deficits.

Helen Ellis administrator Joseph 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 said. "They're in the Tampa Bay area."

A second proposal being considered by Helen Ellis is a partnership between Adventist Health System of Winter Park and University Community Hospital of Tampa. A third proposal involves Morton Plant Mease Healthcare of Dunedin, which has shown surpluses lately while many other hospital groups hemorrhage money.

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 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 meetings 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, and is giving those groups access to its business records.

Helen Ellis isn't the only business venture Tampa General has contemplated. The hospital has also considered buying three hospitals owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp: Memorial Hospital in south Tampa, Town 'N Country Hospital in northwest Hillsborough and Palms of Pasadena in south Pinellas.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.