The Florida House of Representatives approved separate bills last week giving two public hospitals in the state expanded authority to compete with private hospitals.
Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Hospital and Bay Medical Center, Panama City, said they needed the legislation to compete with private hospitals that are developing managed-care networks and entering business deals with physicians and other providers. The legislation would allow the two public hospitals to become minority partners in joint ventures with private companies.
The state Senate was expected to pass the measures.
Sarasota Memorial failed to win part of its legislative quest-a provision that would have clarified its exemption from antitrust laws as a public hospital. The hospital said it wanted the clarification as a weapon to defend itself against physician lawsuits. But the hospital was defeated by the lobbying forces of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., now Florida's largest private employer.
Columbia lobbyists, however, didn't oppose an identical antitrust provision in Bay Medical's bill, which was approved last week in the House.
Both public hospitals compete with hospitals owned by Columbia. Four other public hospitals in Florida have similar antitrust exemptions, including Lee Memorial Hospital, Fort Myers.
"All we were asking for is clarification of (antitrust protections) we already have (as a public hospital)," said Michael Covert, Sarasota Memorial's president and chief executive officer.
Covert said as many as 10 Columbia representatives lobbied legislators to take out its antitrust provision. Sarasota Memorial hired one lobbyist to help its effort, he said.
A Columbia spokesman said it opposed the antitrust exemption for Sarasota Memorial because it would have given the 645-bed hospital an unfair competitive advantage over its 168-bed Doctors Hospital of Sarasota.
"We saw it as a situation where we are in a highly competitive environment (with Sarasota Memorial)," said William Hussey, president of the Tampa Bay division of Columbia. "Any time you single out one competitor and give them specific exemptions on antitrust, the playing field is no longer level."
Columbia owns 56, or 26%, of Florida's 217 acute-care hospitals. It also owns four of the nine hospitals in Sarasota County and the three counties that surround it.
Columbia owns 176-bed Gulf Coast Hospital in Panama City, which competes with 302-bed Bay Medical.
"We aren't in as competitive a situation as Sarasota is," said Ronald Wolff, Bay Medical's president and CEO. "Managed care isn't an issue here yet, but it's coming."
Covert said the antitrust provision could have helped Sarasota Memorial avoid protracted lawsuits with physicians who are denied medical staff privileges or exclusive contracts. The hospital has spent almost $4 million successfully defending itself against several suits filed by physicians, he said.