A House panel Thursday approved a bill that would lead to circuit judges reviewing the sales or leases of public hospitals, amid signs that opposition to the proposal could be evaporating, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.
The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which includes public hospitals, fought — and ultimately helped kill — a similar proposal last year. But Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for the alliance, said Thursday it can support a review process, though it would like to see some changes in the bill.
“I think cooler heads have prevailed from last year,” Iarossi said after the House Health & Human Services Quality Subcommittee unanimously approved the proposal (HB 711).
Public hospitals face mounting political pressure, as powerful Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is sponsoring another bill designed to create stricter oversight of sales or leases of the facilities. Also, Gov. Rick Scott has made clear he wants major changes in public hospitals, appointing a commission that recently offered wide-ranging recommendations.
Rep. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican who is sponsoring the House proposal, said public hospitals might be trying to work out differences on the sale-or-lease issue because they anticipate a bill passing this year. Hooper also said he thinks Scott would be receptive to such a bill.
“I think that’s why everybody’s playing nice,” he said.
Hooper and other supporters argue that the sales or leases of public hospitals need more public scrutiny. Also, for-profit hospital companies, such as Health Management Associates and Tenet Healthcare, have backed the bill because they say they want to ensure fair competition when public facilities are sold or leased.
Bill supporters point, in part, to a failed merger last year between the public Bert Fish Medical Center in Volusia County and the non-profit Adventist Health System. That deal fell apart after it was disclosed that the Bert Fish board had violated the state’s open-meetings law by discussing the merger in private.
“The public deserves this oversight because it is their property and their money,” said Rep. Ronald “Doc” Renuart, a Ponte Vedra Beach Republican who voted for Hooper’s bill Thursday.
The bill would lead to circuit judges reviewing proposed sales or leases and ruling on issues such as whether transactions would be at “fair market value,” whether existing programs and services would continue and whether hospital taxes would be eliminated or reduced. The bill would exempt about 10 publicly owned hospitals that do not receive local taxes.
Iarossi said public hospitals are concerned that the bill would lead to subjectivity in determining whether transactions are at fair-market value. Also, he said they are concerned about part of the bill that would require a “fairness evaluation by an independent expert” of such transactions.
“We’re not quite sure what a fairness evaluation is,” Iarossi told the subcommittee.
Senate Health Regulation Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has proposed a bill (SB 464) that largely mirror’s Hooper’s proposal. Garcia’s committee was scheduled to hear that bill Thursday, but he postponed it until next week.
Also pending are bills filed by Gaetz and Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. Those bills, in part, would give the state chief financial officer the power to review public-hospital sales or leases.
Gaetz, who is slated to become Senate president after the fall elections, said he and Garcia will work together on the issue. He said he doesn’t think most circuit judges have business experience to review hospital sales or leases, though Scott also has said he doesn’t think the chief financial officer should have the power.
Regardless, Gaetz indicated he is open to discussing various alternatives for reviewing sales or leases.
“It’s less important who does the due-diligence process and more important that there be one,” he said.
Iarossi said the Safety Net Hospital Alliance is working on all four bills.
“It’s probably better to have a process in place, as long as it’s fair and something we can live with,” he said.