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?December hearing could end hospital contest

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SUN CITY CENTER – After years of contentious competition and legal wrangling, the last chapters in the South County’s convoluted tale of two hospitals aiming for new facilities in the same location may be written in a courtroom during early December. Both of them appear to be focusing on different interests.

And, despite strong support for it in this community, it is unlikely – although not totally precluded — that a portion of the 11-day administrative law court hearing will be conducted in or near Sun City Center. The hearing related to the two networks’ 2007 new hospital proposals at this time is scheduled from December 6th through December 17th. Such hearings normally are held in Tallahassee.

southbay3The contest between the St. Joseph’s Hospital network, based in Tampa, and South Bay Hospital, a unit of Tennessee-based Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) and operating in a 25-year-old plant on S.R. 674, dates back at least to 2005 when both petitioned the state’s Agency on Health Care Administration (AHCA) for go aheads to build on their individual acreages abutting Big Bend Road, east of I-75. Both submitted plans to build large new acute care hospital complexes on opposite sides of the primary roadway connecting the east and west sides of the South County region.

Before the legal argument over the 2005 plans was concluded, South Bay altered its proposal in a 2007 submission to the state, suggesting it relocate most services to its future new complex on Big Bend Road, leaving behind in SCC essentially its emergency department. This plan received a stamp of approval from AHCA, an approval contested by St. Joseph’s.

The hospital networks’ 2005 Certificate of Need (CON) petitions were resolved ultimately when a district court of appeal affirmed the ruling of an administrative law court which had found for St. Joseph’s. And subsequently, the Tampa-based network has moved ahead vigorously with its plans to build on about 65 acres adjacent to the Big Bend-Simmons Loop intersection.

The December hearing is to concentrate on the 2007 CONs; South Bay’s approved by AHCA in the same timeframe that the St. Joseph’s 2005 plan was supported by the courts with the net result that St. Joseph’s 2007 petition was denied by the state agency.

St. Joseph’s attorneys in December will be arguing against that denial, Lisa Patterson, the hospital network’s spokesperson, said this week. Looking ahead to the hearing, she added, the network’s legal team has interviewed a substantial number of area residents with an eye to taking formal depositions for the hearing from them in November.

As for all or part of the upcoming hearing conducted in or near SCC, the Florida statute defining functions of the state’s administrative law courts certainly provides for such a change of venue if the court should so choose, said Karen Putnal, a Tallahassee attorney whose firm is representing St. Joseph’s. However, Putnal added, she had no information that the court would make such a move in this case.

Meanwhile, South Bay also appears to be exploring another direction. Hospital executives have been engaged in discussions with University of South Florida medical school managers and with SCC leaders about creation of a medical center for seniors supported by the three different entities and located on or near the hospital’s current campus.

Asked about possible impact on South Bay’s positions in the December hearing by its clear interest in establishing the new focused medical service, Melissa Morgan, hospital spokesperson, asserted the two subjects “are not related. Nothing (from South Bay’s perspective in connection with the hearing and its AHCA approval for relocation) has changed,” she added.

And, the planned new hospital on Big Bend Road, being called St. Joseph’s South, now is in the design and development stage, Patterson said. It is projected the 110-bed facility’s doors will open in 2015.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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