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Hospital panel puts MRMC lease search on hold

Ocala, FL - April 17, 2012
Published in Ocala Star-Banner on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 2:47 p.m.

The group that is trying to find a private company to lease Munroe Regional Medical Center wants to hold off naming the two finalists until voters decide on a tax for the hospital in November.

The Strategic Options Work Group created by the Marion County Hospital District trustees had narrowed the health care companies interested in leasing Munroe to four and had planned to whittle it to two later this summer.

But on Monday, the group voted to push back any decisions about narrowing the list of applicants until after Nov. 7. That is when voters will decide whether to support a tax to help the hospital.

The Munroe trustees will ultimately decide, however, whether to accept the Work Group recommendation and slow the search for a private hospital management company.

The pause in the process only makes sense, the majority of the Work Group said, because if the referendum is approved in the fall, there would be no need to lease the hospital.

Supporters of the move also said that since the District was slated to get two new trustees in July, it was best to hold off narrowing the search.

Work Group member Joan Stearns said continuing with the applicant search would also send voters considering the referendum "a mixed message" that trustees were not listening to the public and not giving the referendum issue their full attention.

Work Group members Kulbir Ghumman, Stearns and Dr. Mike Jordan had also wanted to recommend to trustees they suspend the search process entirely.

"We either take seriously the issue of the referendum ... If we give this serious concern, we should set aside the (lease search) process," Ghumman said.

Ghumman is also a trustee.

Jordan, also a trustee, said he would not push that issue for now since the group's new timetable pushed back the narrowing of the applicant list, but he might bring up in the future the issue of suspending the process.

He said conducting a search for a hospital management company and preparing a referendum are "conflicting" goals.

But Work Group Chairman Jon Kurtz, who is also the trustee chairman, said trustees voted to place the issue of a $130 million bond tax referendum on the November ballot with the understanding there would be a lease alternative if the referendum failed.

"To cancel one when we've had open discussions is not the way to go," he said.

Work Group member Brian O'Connor said that by keeping both options open, applicants would be encouraged to negotiate in good faith and offer top dollar because the referendum would offer trustees another option if negotiations stalled.

Driving the lease applicant search is an earlier hospital study that showed Munroe would need $150 million in capital improvements to remain competitive. It would also need $20 million a year for facility improvements and equipment. The medical center is often the hospital of last resort for many, has a higher-than-typical number of indigent patients, more bad debt and a high Medicaid/Medicare case loads.

Munroe Regional Medical Center is owned by the state-sanctioned Marion County Hospital District and overseen by seven trustees who are appointed by the County Commission. The seven trustees currently lease the hospital to Munroe Regional Health System, which is overseen by a 13-member board, some of whose members are also district trustees.

Also Monday, Working Group consultants Ponder & Company said it's unlikely to complete a lease agreement by Dec. 31. That's important to trustees because a new Florida law requires that the proceeds from any public hospital lease or sale after the end of the year be split: half to county commissioners to be spent to encourage health care-related job growth, and the other half for indigent care.

Before the new law, trustees would have received all the money, to be spent on health care-related issue as they saw fit.


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