Hospital Giveaway

A secret plan to shovel millions to a private school.

It's secretive and rushed -- the twin hallmarks of bad government.

The tax-subsidized North Broward Hospital District was to unveil a plan to build a 150-bed hospital at Nova Southeastern University in Davie -- at a likely cost of more than $100 million -- next week during a hastily called special board meeting.

District staff, which has been covertly working on the project for more than a year, planned to describe the project to commissioners as a visionary partnership that would benefit medical students and the public alike.

But in reality, it represents a massive giveaway of public dollars to Nova, a private, for-profit school that charges about five times more in tuition than public universities and is heavily influenced by one of its trustees, mogul H. Wayne Huizenga.

After New Times got wind this past Monday of the planned meeting, it was canceled just as quickly as it had been scheduled. District officials refused to comment, and public record requests for information weren't answered. Spokeswoman Sara Howley said she didn't know about the proposed new hospital when contacted about it Monday.

Nova President Ray Ferrero, whose school is embarking on a half-billion-dollar expansion project, refused to discuss the plan. "The concept has not been approved by the hospital district [board]," Ferrero said. "Once the hospital district approves the plan, I will be happy to discuss it."

So what is going on? According to district sources, the board was to consider applying for a state Certificate of Need for the new hospital. The district has only until August 9 to file with the state or it will have to wait until next year, ACHA spokeswoman Kim Reed said.

The glaring problem with the proposal, according to district sources, is that there is no need for 150 additional hospital beds on the Nova campus on University Drive near Griffin Road. The area is currently serviced by the public Memorial Hospital Pembroke to the south and the private Westside Regional Medical Center to the north.

To persuade the state to approve the project, the district is considering the transfer of 150 beds from Broward General, its flagship medical center in Fort Lauderdale, to the new site. Diverting resources from that hospital, however, would seem to make little sense; it's in the midst of a $160 million expansion and serves the booming downtown Fort Lauderdale area, where thousands of new housing units are opening or under construction.

Money comes easy to the district, though -- it's been raising property taxes to record rates to pay for its far-flung projects. This year, it will take in $200 million from homeowners. And NBHD officials have never hesitated to throw around the public's money, especially when it comes to Nova, which already receives hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of district contracts each year.

And Huizenga's influence shouldn't be understated. The Miami Dolphins owner gave his name to Nova's business school, and his football team practices on the campus. Huizenga also has his tentacles deep inside the Republican-controlled district. His former right-hand man, Steven Berrard, sits on the board, and district lobbyist James Blosser is a long-time Huizenga attorney. The Dolphins team doctors, led by orthopedist Dan Kanell, also recently won bloated contracts to work for the district.

But the new hospital project is far from a done deal. Once the district files for its Certificate of Need, the proposal will undergo rigorous review. "Every hospital will get a chance to support it or oppose it," says Frank Sacco, CEO of the South Broward Hospital District, which runs Memorial Hospital Pembroke. "It could literally be tied in the regulatory process for years."

Let's hope it's tied up at least as long as it takes for the public to have its say on the project. -- Bob Norman

 
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