A federal and state investigation is under way into whether Tampa (Fla.) General Healthcare was being devalued last year in an unsuccessful attempt to sell it to Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.
Last week, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed former Tampa General President David Bussone regarding accusations that he devalued the 731-bed public hospital to sell it to the nation's largest hospital company.
According to local reports, the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. Justice Department also were involved in the probe.
In an interview with MODERN HEALTHCARE, Bussone strongly denied the allegations. "This whole thing is orchestrated to generate negative press for me and Columbia for political gain and competitive reasons," Bussone said.
Indeed, the story received banner headlines in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which quoted former Tampa General President Fred Karl as saying that "there's unmistakable circumstantial evidence that the hospital was close to being sold." The newspaper reported that a federal grand jury may be convened on the matter next month.
It also said Karl's accusations sparked the state inquiry.
Karl did not return phone calls. However, Bussone said that Columbia never made an offer to buy the hospital, nor did hospital officials ask for an offer from Columbia.
Columbia officials also denounced the accusations.
"These are baseless allegations that are malicious and mean-spirited," said Lindy Richardson, a Columbia senior vice president.
Bussone quit Tampa General on Oct. 20, 1994, under pressure from his board over layoffs, financial problems resulting from a fire and the elimination of a residency program (Oct. 31, 1994, p. 26).
After his resignation, he was accused of meeting secretly with Columbia officials. Bussone said he talked with Columbia, but the discussions centered on managed-care networks. He said he also talked to other providers, including University Community Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital, both in Tampa.
Bussone asked Columbia's president and chief executive officer, Richard Scott, to speak to hospital officials, but Bussone said Scott was only one of several hospital leaders he invited to talk about the changes in healthcare.
Scott spoke to hospital officials on Oct. 24, 1994, four days after Bussone resigned.
After leaving, Bussone was hired by Columbia and now is administrator at its Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, Fla.
In a related matter, the Volunteer Trustees of Not-for-Profit Hospitals, which represents 180 tax-exempt facilities, wrote to attorneys general in six states about the acquisitive moves of investor-owned systems.
"We asked them what kind of oversight they're providing," said Linda Miller, the group's executive director.
She said her group is concerned about how community hospitals are valued when they are sold to for-profit chains.
She also said the group is concerned about instances in which the price of a not-for-profit hospital is not disclosed. "These deals are negotiated in secret and not available to the public," Miller said.
When asked whether not-for-profit hospital boards also should disclose prices when the facility is sold to another not-for-profit system, Miller said: "I don't know what the disclosure requirements are not-for-profit to not-for-profit. I think the community should weigh in on these as well."