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Editorial: Hedging our bets

IN OUR OPINION

Ocala, FL - April 22, 2012

Published in Ocala Star-Banner on Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 6:30 a.m.


For the most part, the six-year-long conversation about Munroe Regional Medical Center's financial future has been an either-or proposition — either enact a hospital tax or lease the publicly owned hospital long term to an outside company.

The Marion County Hospital District trustees who oversee Munroe voted last month to put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to approve a 1-mill property tax to fund a 10-year, $130 million bond. The money would be used to upgrade and modernize the hospital and pay down some of its existing debt. At the same time, the trustees are looking at potential lease deals should the tax fail at the polls.

But now comes a game-changer. Legislation promoted and recently signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott would force the hospital district — after Dec. 31 — to give half of any proceeds from a lease or sale of the hospital to the County Commission. Since the amounts being offered by the four companies on the trustees' short list of suitors run anywhere from $100 million to $352 million to take over operation of the 421-bed hospital, the potential loss, should the tax fail, is huge.

The hospital trustees should continue to negotiate with the four companies seeking to lease the hospital and aim to have final proposals ready to vote on immediately after the election. We still support keeping Munroe public, given its track record as an award-winning health care provider and as a well-managed organization. We, like many others, are convinced relinquishing local control of one of the nation's finest community hospitals will result in reductions in staff and services over time.

Yet, we also are pragmatic enough to recognize that if the tax fails, Munroe's financial future becomes measurably more clouded, and a lessee may be its only option. So why not continue to negotiate with the four hospital companies that want to run Munroe? If the trustees wait, there will be no way they can cobble together a deal in time to meet the Dec. 31 deadline. As it stands now, meeting the deadline will be difficult given the size of the deal, the conditions that both sides will be asking of each other and the number of lawyers involved.

As with any major community decision — and the future of Munroe is a watershed moment for this community — there is plenty of disagreement over which way the trustees should go. But one point upon which almost everyone agrees, including us, is the County Commission should not be involved in managing Munroe or our community's health care system.

We hope the hospital tax passes but believe the trustees must be prepared to go an alternate, next-best direction. It is simply a matter of hedging our bets. It is a no-brainer, frankly, that $300 million to put toward maintaining quality health care services in our community is better than half that amount.

Some trustees have said that continuing to negotiate while trying to sell a tax to the community will send "conflicting" messages. Maybe. But we also know that maintaining the best community hospital possible is the ultimate goal of this long-running debate. Should the tax fail, a lease may be the best option, and being prepared to beat Scott's Dec. 31 deadline would be the best deal for Munroe and Marion County.


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