ST. PETERSBURG — When Republicans held their presidential nominating convention in Tampa in 2012, Dr. Akshay Desai was among the biggest local players in party politics.
Dr. Desai, a geriatrician and founder of Universal Health Care, feted Republican governors at his bayfront mansion, dined with former President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch and with his wife, Seema, contributed more than $800,000 to Republican candidates and causes. But behind the scenes, Dr. Desai’s company was collapsing amid allegations of fraud and embezzlement. Within months of the convention, FBI agents raided Universal’s St. Petersburg offices as the company filed for bankruptcy.
Dr. Desai stepped back from public view but continued seeing patients. He died Nov. 29; his funeral was held Tuesday. He was 61.
A native of India, Dr. Desai did his residency in the United States and opened a practice in St. Petersburg because of its large elderly population. He soon began managing the practices of other doctors and in 2003, he started a health maintenance organization, Universal Health Care, for people on Medicare and Medicaid.
With his new company and palatial Snell Isle home, the frequent site of charity galas, Dr. Desai quickly established himself in civic circles. Bush named him to his Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to a board that oversaw Florida’s university system.
Universal grew quickly, eventually boasting more than 140,000 members in 23 states. Its “Any, Any, Any” Medicare Advantage plan was a huge hit; members loved the promise that they could see any doctor anywhere at any time.
But hospitals and members complained about delayed payments and denied claims. A joke had it that "Any, Any, Any'' meant Universal wasn’t paying “any doctors, any hospitals and any agents.”
At the same time, state records showed, Dr. Desai spent lavishly, rewarding executives with $120,000 BMWs, buying a condo and building an art-filled new headquarters on two floors of a downtown St. Petersburg office building. (It is now home to the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.)
Universal lost $27 million in 2011 and the losses continued to grow even as Dr. Desai gave himself a $2.5 million bonus on top of his $900,000 salary. By early 2013, regulators were starting to liquidate the company when it declared bankruptcy. The FBI raid came the same week that a bankruptcy court trustee alleged a "pattern of dishonesty or gross mismanagement'' at Universal, including "side deals'' that benefited insiders.
Dr. Desai, through his attorney, told the Tampa Bay Times then that his company "always acted in ethical and legal fashion.''
Universal’s collapse left more than 800 employees without jobs, scores of providers unpaid and thousands of members searching for alternative plans to cover their health care needs. Investors in the company — including other doctors — lost millions. The bankruptcy case is unresolved, six years later.
Although Dr. Desai had many critics in life, several people praised him this week on a memorial page. "He believed in education, allowing me an opportunity to attend school full time to obtain my nursing license,'' one woman wrote. "I could never thank him enough for his generosity and kindness.''
Dr. Akshay Desai
Born: Jan. 29, 1958
Died: Nov. 29, 2019