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Partners no more: USF med school and St. Petersburg's largest hospital announce a breakup

A partnership between USF Health and Bayfront Health ends after just three years. A USF official says Bayfront's parent company "has their own objective of selling off hospitals."
Published Feb. 1

The University of South Florida is cutting ties with Bayfront Health, ending a short-lived partnership between the university's medical school and the oldest and largest hospital in downtown St. Petersburg.

Dan Vukmer, senior associate vice president for network integration with USF Health, said the objectives of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg no longer align with those of the university. The three-year partnership, he said, "never really getting off the ground in how we anticipated" and didn't involve students from the medical school.

That was "a problem on its own," Vukmer said. The program sent five USF Health-employed physicians to the hospital.

Bayfront Health and its six hospitals along the Gulf Coast, including in St. Petersburg, is owned by Community Health Systems. The chain is one of the nation's largest owners and operators of hospitals with 137 of them in 21 states. It has struggled financially in recent years, posting heavy net losses quarter after quarter and has sold dozens of under-performing hospitals from its portfolio, including Bayfront Health Dade City last year, which was bought by AdventHealth.

The company's stock also has plummeted over the last three years.

"CHS has their own objective of selling off hospitals. We're looking for a more permanent partner that's more dedicated to our clinical and research goals," Vukmer said. "There's been a change in leadership at Bayfront and USF, and it is time to move on."

John McLain, CEO of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, said the separation was mutual.

"Our approach to enhancing clinical services has evolved with physician and provider recruitment becoming a key element of our strategic direction. With this change in approach, we have decided not to continue our clinical affiliation with USF," " he said in a statement. "USF is an outstanding institution and we're grateful for their support of our patients and hospital. We look forward to working with them and other providers in the area to help make St. Petersburg a healthier community."

He added that the partnership would formally end in June. Vukmer said the USF Health signs on the hospital will be removed next month.

RELATED: Charitable arm looks to separate from Bayfront Health. Could a sale of the hospital be next?

Bayfront Health struck a partnership with USF Health in 2015, when two of its cardiologists came to St. Petersburg. In total, five doctors are affected by the severed partnership. Two will become employees of Bayfront Health and two will return to USF Health, Vukmer said. One is "looking for other opportunities," he said.

The goal of the partnership was meant to be mutually beneficial: Bayfront Health's status would be raised by having doctors who were part of an academic community and USF Health would have a presence in Pinellas County, expanding its reach in Tampa Bay.

Vukmer said it's too early to tell if USF Health would consider another partnership in Pinellas.

"Our real partner is Tampa General Hospital. We've both decided to come much closer together. That could lead to something on this side of the bay, some day," Vukmer said.

Community Health Systems purchased Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, once known as Bayfront Medical Center, in 2013 from another hospital chain, Health Management Associates. Just last summer, the hospital ran advertisements highlighting a newly expanded cardiology team, which included the two USF Health physicians. Bayfront officials said at the time that the expanding department would only strengthen its relationship with USF Health.

RELATED: St. Pete's new pulse spurs Bayfront Health to grow its heart program

Last year Bayfront Health St. Petersburg renovated its neurology and orthopedic floors, and construction is ongoing to double the footprint of the emergency department with all private rooms. The chain also opened a freestanding ER in Pinellas Park.

USF Health has other hospital partners in the Tampa Bay community. In addition to Tampa General, they include Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and the James A. Haley Veterans Affairs Hospital. Tampa General is the principal clinical affiliate of the USF College of Medicine.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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