|Ocala, FL -
September 27, 2011|
Published in the Ocala Star-Banner on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 6:08 p.m.
As a consultant begins studying ways to fix the erosion of Munroe Regional Medical Center’s finances, a growing number of Munroe supporters are voicing suspicions that the County Commission is trying to engineer a sale or lease of the hospital to a private company.
That sentiment boiled over Monday night when community and business leaders turned out at a hospital board meeting to express their desire to keep MRMC under public ownership.
Col. Edward Johnson, a local businessman and former hospital district trustee, chastised county commissioners for publicly opposing tax support for Munroe, even while the county spends millions on economic development efforts.
“This institution is a community jewel,” Johnson said. “We realize the County Commission does not favor tax options. They are anti-Munroe in that sense.”
More than a dozen speakers followed Johnson, each expressing strong support for the current hospital administration, which runs Munroe as a not-for-profit entity called Munroe Regional Health Systems Inc. MRHS operates the hospital through a lease with the public Marion County Hospital District.
However, MRHS’ own projections show a steady deterioration of the hospital’s finances.
Munroe is what is known as a “safety net hospital” that provides an array of services to the poor, regardless of their ability to pay. The large amount of uncompensated care it provides — about $20 million a year — combined with decreasing reimbursements from private and government insurance, has put it on a path that one consultant called “unsustainable.”
Ponder & Co., a health care strategy and consulting firm, has been hired to help hospital directors study solutions. Ponder expects to finish its work in six to eight months, but it has been generally accepted that its final report will include three options: Pass a tax to prop up Munroe, sell or lease the hospital to a hospital company, or forge “strategic alliances” with other health care providers.
But those who attended Monday’s meeting, as well as some hospital district trustees, believe the County Commission aims to stack the board of trustees with appointees who oppose a tax and support privatizing Munroe.
The County Commission’s most recent appointment was Larry Strack, a retired accountant who has voted in recent weeks to cancel the lease with the not-for-profit MRHS. The County Commission gets a chance to make more appointments in June, when two more trustees’ terms expire.
The only county commissioner in attendance Monday was Chairman Stan McClain, who is the commission’s liaison to the hospital board.
A day after the meeting, McClain said many of those who chastised the County Commission are “misinformed” about what the commission wants. He said the County Commission simply wants the trustees “to work through all the options,” and, if they decide the hospital needs tax support, bring a recommendation to the commission.
McClain, however, is one of several commissioners who has steadfastly opposed a tax for Munroe. He said he still opposes a tax, but “at the end of the day, after they vet all the options, if that’s the only thing to do, I probably would not stand in the way.”
McClain acknowledged that, while he would try to appoint trustees in June “who think like me,” he would not look for someone who has ruled out taxes completely.
“I would appoint a trustee who would consider taxation a last option,” he said.
Commissioner Kathy Bryant did not attend Monday’s meeting but said Tuesday that she has not made up her mind about privatizing Munroe.
“The only request I have had is that (the trustees) look at all the options and consider all options and present us all options,” she said.
One option Bryant does not support is a property tax for Munroe. She believes property taxes place an unfair burden on property owners. Bryant would, however, consider a public referendum on a sales tax for the hospital.
As to whether she could vote to appoint a hospital trustee who supports a tax for Munroe, Bryant said she is committed to finding “the best qualified” person to serve on the board of trustees.
When pressed to say whether she would exclude trustee candidates who favor a tax, she said: “Would I vote for somebody just because they are against a tax? Absolutely not. I would have to look at the whole picture.”