By Jodie Tillman
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — University of South Florida officials had envisioned the multimillion-dollar medical center 80 miles away in the Villages retirement community as a bold expression of the medical school's wider ambitions.
But so few patients turned up for care that the university last summer abandoned its work at the clinic and turned over millions of dollars in assets to the for-profit Villages Health System. Now the failure has created a job opportunity for a former USF official, which is worrying some university leaders.
"It raises questions and concerns," said USF trustee Scott Hopes of the fact that the same doctor who presided over the start and end of the university's venture is now working for Villages Health.
That doctor is Jeff Lowenkron, who in December resigned his post as chief executive officer of the USF Physicians Group, the medical school faculty's practice, to become chief medical officer for Villages Health.
Villages Health is the entity that emerged from efforts by former USF medical school dean Stephen Klasko to transform the Villages, near Ocala, into "America's Healthiest Hometown."
As part of that program, USF's physician practice invested millions in patient revenues into creating a center offering such specialties as gynecology and orthopedics at the Villages. But only a few months after opening early last year, patient numbers were so far below projections that USF administrators determined they were on track to lose $2 million.
So in June, USF pulled the plug, turning over assets — the leased building, employee operations and medical equipment — to Villages Health. The university's medical practice wrote off nearly $5 million on the deal, Hopes said.
Lowenkron said in an interview that he wished the USF partnership had worked out. But in the months after USF decided to get out of the business, he began talking with Villages officials about taking a job there, a position similar to one he held before coming to USF in 2012. He resigned on Dec. 22 and started at the Villages this month.
"It's really pretty straightforward," said Lowenkron, who made a $600,000-per-year base salary at USF.
Lowenkron joins another Klasko hire at the Villages: Dr. Elliot Sussman, who started out as Klasko's paid consultant on the Villages-USF project and now is chairman of Villages Health. Sussman had previously been head of the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania, where Klasko had also worked before arriving at USF. Sussman and Lowenkron maintain faculty appointments at USF.
Klasko now leads Thomas Jefferson University and its health system in Philadelphia. While at USF, Klasko initiated several ventures beyond the Tampa Bay area, including the Villages center, a training program with Lehigh Valley and a now-stalled residency program at Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
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USF spokeswoman Lara Wade declined to talk about Lowenkron's departure, saying the administration does not comment on personnel issues.
But Hopes says the physician's move to the Villages doesn't look good, perception-wise. He sees it as a symptom of broader problems with how the university handled the Villages project.
The university's board of trustees formally weighed in on the issue only once, in 2012: to allow USF's medical practice to enter into the 20-year, $17-million lease with the retirement community.
By its own rules, the board must handle any lease longer than five years or with a value greater than $5 million. The board voted unanimously to waive the policy and allow the physicians practice to sign the lease.
"I don't believe the board was fully informed" at each stage, said Hopes, who joined the board in 2013.
Wade, the USF spokeswoman, said the decision to cancel the lease and transfer the assets to the Villages was appropriately handled by administrators, rather than at the board level.
Board member Byron Shinn, a Bradenton accountant, said he didn't know much about the Villages deal and was disappointed it hadn't worked out. As someone who has pushed for more transparency, he said he could have used additional information earlier in the process.
"I don't think we were apprised of the details," he said.
Other board members said they believed they knew enough. Chairman Hal Mullis said Klasko and, later, his replacement, Dr. Charles Lockwood, kept board members up to date on developments.
"It's not the job of the board of trustees to try to do the job of, in this case, the dean of the medical school. It is their job to provide an appropriate amount of governance and oversight," said Mullis, a Tampa lawyer. "I've got to tell you, I think there was an appropriate amount of oversight by the board … with respect to the Villages."
Contact Jodie Tillman at email@example.com. Follow @jtillmantimes.