An ongoing battle between two not-for-profit healthcare systems in Brevard County, Fla., has escalated with a lawsuit charging one with monopolistic practices.
The latest counterpunch was hurled last week by Rockledge-based Wuesthoff Health Systems, which alleges that Melbourne-based Health First is setting up a monopoly for services and patients in the central Florida county.
The suit comes just two weeks before Wuesthoff appears before the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to defend its certificate-of-need approval for a $50 million, 20-acre medical complex in Melbourne. The agency granted the CON in July 1997, but Health First appealed that decision based on lack of demonstrated need.
In its five-count complaint seeking $120 million in damages, Wuesthoff alleges Health First coerced health insurers, HMOs and physicians to stop doing business with Wuesthoff and to refer patients to one of its three facilities in Brevard County.
Health First is alleged to have told physicians they would lose staff privileges at its three hospitals if they referred less than 51% of their patients to its facilities. Health First also is said to have told insurers and HMOs they would be boycotted by the system if they did business with Wuesthoff.
An attorney for Health First said the system had not done anything wrong.
Wuesthoff's suit, however, contends that Health First illegally offered discounted rates to providers who worked exclusively with the system and did not make the same rates available to those who who worked with Wuesthoff.
Health First, the largest healthcare provider in Brevard County, owns and operates three general acute-care facilities: 468-bed Holmes Regional Medical Center, the only general hospital in Melbourne; 60-bed Palm Bay (Fla.) Community Hospital; and 128-bed Health First Cape Canaveral Hospital, Cocoa Beach.
A Wuesthoff spokesman said the lawsuit was "wholly separate" from the CON issue. Health First disagreed.
The Wuesthoff facility in Melbourne would include a 50-bed general acute-care hospital and an outpatient surgery and diagnostic center. In exchange, the system agreed to cut 100 beds at its flagship 235-bed Wuesthoff Memorial Hospital in Rockledge.
A Health First spokeswoman said the system wouldn't have challenged the CON had the new facility been a specialty hospital or filled another niche community need. It's not uncommon for a community of about 60,000 people to have one hospital, and a new 60-bed facility isn't needed, she contended.