By Estella R. Fullmer
For Hometown News
NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- The Board of Directors of Bert Fish Medical Center met with the Southeast Volusia Hospital District Board of Commissioners June 25 to decide the future of the hospital, one that could come under the umbrella of Health Management Associates of Naples.
The Edgewater City Commission chamber was filled to the brim, standing room only, with Bert Fish medical staff, employees, New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater residents and representatives from Halifax Health and Health Management Associates.
The meeting started with each commissioner stating his feelings on the two potential partners for BFMC. Each one summarized their understanding of the differences between Halifax Health's offer and HMA's offer and then indicated which way they were likely to vote.
All six board members expressed gratitude for the two offers and felt either option had its benefits and they all expressed having a difficult time deciding between the two. In their deliberations they tasked each other to consider three things when looking at each proposal. First they were to asked what is better financially for the hospital, secondly what is going to be best for the medical staff and employees of BFMC and thirdly what is going to be best for the patients and community?
Commissioner Thomas DeSimone stated he had considered voting against making any decision tonight until he received several emails from employees who felt the search for a partner had gone on long enough. Mr. DeSimone decided to go with HMA, although he had reservations about the outstanding legal issues facing both potential partners.
Commissioner Harold Card was in favor of making a decision at this meeting and clearly favored HMA's proposal over Halifax. He stated he had received emails from medical staff and employees who said they were more afraid of Halifax, with whom they were more familiar, than with HMA. He also felt HMA offered the hospital the better financial package.
"This has been a two-year process so far to get this done," stated Commissioner Patrick Corbett. "Halifax Health offers us local control and I personally feel the employees and citizens of Southeast Volusia County would be better served with Halifax."
He cited that Halifax would leave more of the decisions in the hands of Bert Fish Medical Center and their services would benefit patients over what HMA was promising. "I want to do what's right for the people. That's why I am here," Mr. Corbett said.
Commissioner Harold Smothers seemed to have his mind made up, but he did not indicate which way his vote was going. He only felt strongly a decision should be made at this meeting and not postponed.
"It is time to pick a partner and move on so that Bert Fish will grow," Mr. Smothers said.
"I had a difficult time in making up my mind," Commissioner Joseph Benedict said. "I read many letters and emails and talked to staff, employees and the community."
He said he found most in the community favored Halifax and most of the employees favored HMA while the medical staff was against signing with either. "When it comes right down to it, there's not much difference between the two proposals as far as retention of employees," Mr. Benedict said. "My decision right now is not to partner with either one. Let's take some time and look at other options."
Commissioner Ferdinand Heeb was still undecided but leaning towards HMA's proposal. He preferred not to put it to a vote at this meeting, but said if they did so, he would go with HMA.
Several members of the audience were then allowed to address the board with three-minute comments, however, the people allowed to speak were chosen before the meeting by Commissioner Card. He called each one in turn, controlling the order in which they presented their comments. The first three were representatives from other hospitals where HMA merged with their existing facility. They gave testimony HMA did everything it promised it would do when it merged with Wuesthoff in Melbourne. Melvin Mill, Chairman of the Board at Melbourne, pointed out that HMA feels each hospital community is its own family and HMA is part of that family as is every member of the board, medical staff and employee. He also said "Today the administration sees physicians as partners. It's not like it used to be."
George McIttery from Parish Medical Center, a Halifax partner in Titusville said, "We understand the challenges facing hospitals today. We have learned together and we can learn from each other to bring this community the best health care possible." He suggested PMC could help in the transition if Halifax was chosen and felt the community would benefit from a stronger partnership between BFMC, Halifax and PMC. "We can help you hit the ground running," he said.
A retired Bert Fish board member, William Schneider, suggested they hold off making a decision until litigation against both potential partners is resolved. "The hospital is not in dire straits. You can afford to wait because either of these lawsuits has the potential to seriously affect these organizations if they were to lose the case."
Other employees and a representative of the medical staff as well as a private doctor unaffiliated with either HMA or Halifax also urged the board members to hold off on making a decision.
In the end their requests went unheeded as the board decided to take a vote. The first and only motion presented was to send a letter of intent to conduct exclusive, non-binding negotiations with Health Management Associates. After a proper second the board members cast their vote via roll call and it passed 4 to 2. Commissioners Corbett and Heeb voted against the motion.